‘Women… had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations,’ wrote Margot Lee Shetterly in her book, Hidden Figures.

Shetterly’s words ring wholly true. According to the United Nations, women continue to be excluded from fully participating in science on a global scale. A study conducted in 14 countries showed that ‘the probability for women students of graduating with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctor’s degree in science-related fields are 18 per cent, 8 per cent and 2 per cent respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37 per cent, 18 per cent and 6 per cent.’

The United Nations General Assembly declared February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in order to ‘achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.’

Dr Meis Moukayed

‘In the global scene, I do believe that women sometimes don’t have the same opportunities, and they’re not encouraged to have a go-getter attitude,’ says Dr Meis Moukayed, professor of natural sciences, and a member of the UAE Sustainability Research Committee. ‘They are expected to be more domestic or family oriented, rather than career oriented.

‘I refuse to believe that women are not technically able to work. Because in my own career, I was able to be on par with a man, and to reach where I am today,’ she says.

Raya Bidshari

‘Women are less likely to go into science, and that’s because of a wide range of issues, including women putting restraints on themselves because they believe that men are better, and that can be a direct result of societal expectations and stereotypes that women have to deal with. It could also be because of a lack of flexibility in the workplace. Those are just some examples, it’s a very complex issue,’ says Raya Bidshari, co-founder of Dubai’s Cafe Scientifique, the Intelligent Optimism movement, and SciFest Dubai.

In the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index report by the World Economic Forum, the UAE scored above the regional average in most sub-indexes, with 96 per cent of the gender gap closed. It ranks first in the region on literacy rate and third on wage equality. UAE PhD graduates are 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men. However, for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) tertiary-level graduates, 41 per cent are women, while 59 per cent are men.

Speaking about the UAE, Raya says she has noticed positive changes. ‘I’m hopeful for the future because I’m seeing an increase in organised effort to include and encourage more women to go into science fields. In recent years, there’s been some reform and they’ve really been targeting structural changes to encourage women, but any country has a long way to go.’

Several science-related organisations and festivals in the UAE have seen major contributions from women. The Think Science Fair, which was set up to encourage young people to study and pursue careers in science and technology, saw women participants outnumbering men at the annual competition. This year, 62 per cent of the participants at phase one are women.

Emirati Maryam Al Hashemi won prizes at the fair for converting plastic into petrol, for making the first plastic solar panel, and the first transparent solar panel. Maryam also won a sustainability award in the Intel ISEF competition in the United States – all before graduating high school.

‘I got a lot of help and motivation from my chemistry teacher, and without her, I wouldn’t have gotten those opportunities,’ says Maryam. ‘I believe that it was important for me to have a woman role model, because I needed someone to look up to.’

Maryam says she wasn’t interested in science before entering the competition. ‘I think fewer girls go into science than boys because they don’t believe they can do it, and think they won’t find employment. I used to believe that men should go into science, and women should stay in business and work behind the desk. But after my experiences, I see that we’re equal – we’ll get opportunities if we focus on doing what we love.’

Nina Tandon is CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, a US-based company that grows living human bones for skeletal reconstruction. ‘I studied electrical engineering, then biomedical engineering for my PhD, then I went to get an MBA as well, and that helped with starting up the business. It’s a mixture of science and entrepreneurship, and both of those things don’t have a lot of women.’

Nina, who was in the UAE this month for the Festival @ Ideas Forum at New York University Abu Dhabi, believes young girls are attracted to science when it is part of a mission. ‘What we found when we researched this is that the more we can connect whatever the field of study is, to its mission, the more likely we are to have women. For example, sure, isn’t it really cool to learn about diffusion? But isn’t it much cooler to learn about diffusion when you’re trying to develop a medicine so it can get to where it needs to go?’

Another speaker at the Ideas festival, Dr Dava Newman, MIT professor of astronautics and former Nasa deputy administrator, told Friday that schools and organisations need to be more inclusive and ‘filter people in.’ She says: ‘When it comes to younger people, you have to ask, what problem do you want to solve in the world? Clean water, clean energy, or maybe getting people to Mars? Whatever it is, I say, good, we need you. That’s how I feel about talent, we need everyone, and we don’t leave sources untapped.’

Dr Hanifa Al Beloushi

The L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science Middle East Fellowship award, which honours Arab women researchers, and encourages them to pursue a career in science in the GCC, was awarded to another local trailblazing woman scientist, Dr Hanifa Al Beloushi. Dr Hanifa, who works at Masdar Institute, won the fellowship for producing eco-friendly biodiesel that doesn’t compete with food sources. She was a recent graduate when she won.

‘The competition was tight. There were 60 applicants from the UAE, and it felt amazing when Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi [UAE Minister of State for Tolerance] congratulated me and let me know that I’ve won. It was like a dream. The experience was the best recognition of my work that I’ve ever had,’ she says.

‘If you look at what was happening in the World Government Summit [in Dubai in February] you will find a huge endorsement of women,’ says Dr Moukayed. ‘His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai]... and his wife Princess Haya, Chairman of the Board at the Dubai International Humanitarian City… are really empowering and encouraging women to step up further and be in positions of leadership. I think the UAE is a unique place to enhance the role of women and to empower women.’

‘There’s more than 50 per cent women in UAE universities, and I love that. There’s 75 per cent working in the aerospace industry, that’s amazing,’ says MIT’s Dr Newman. ‘It’s setting the bar really high, and that’s telling us in the US or in the UK, that we better catch up. So that’s a great example of when there’s the willpower and great leadership, then you can make those challenges go away.’

Dr Moukayed says she believes any gap is a result of societal standards and lack of family encouragement, rather than government policy. ‘Sometimes, the issues are because of women themselves. Sometimes some of them may favour, because of personal, cultural or societal reasons, to stay within a softer setting, or a family setting. Although I don’t believe balancing both is impossible. I think it’s more to do with guidance from families. Women are more encouraged to go to softer settings. The trend is definitely changing. I remember at first, women were just being encouraged to go into professional settings. Full stop.’

‘Sometimes, a lot of girls are not set up to be breadwinners, and sometimes it happens subconsciously,’ said Raya.

A report by Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by the Advanced Technology Investment Company in Abu Dhabi, reported that experts interviewed said many aspiring STEM students face problems with male and female family members believing that some areas of study are not suitable for women.

All the women interviewed by Friday described that support from their families was present and crucial to their achievements.

‘My family was supportive, and I was able to live away from home, study and work late nights. It really depends on the support you get and your environment,’ says Dr Hanifa.

Think Science fair winner Maryam says it was her family who encouraged her to become a scientist. ‘If it weren’t for my family’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have done what I have, or won all those awards.’

Noura Saeed Al Qaseer, a high school student and another winner at the Think Science fair, felt that although she had encouragement from her family to pursue her ambitions in science, other girls might not have that privilege.

“I think women should have equal rights to man. Women are innovative. They are amazing thinkers, and whenever there’s a female task force it’s great because we can have much more ideas and innovations,” said Noura Saeed. 

A lack of role models reaching out to girls at schools and encouraging their interest in science also appears to be a factor.

‘So there aren’t enough young ladies going into science? Well maybe there aren’t enough people in those fields reaching out to them and engaging with them,’ says Dr Moukayed.

‘To encourage even more interest, there needs to be more focus on high school students,’ says Dr Hanifa. ‘Young people are now interested in computer and robot technology, and we need to make kids more aware of the available support, and make more contributions to high schools, which we should be looking at because we need to be looking further into the future. We shouldn’t only be looking at 2020, but 2030.’

Fatima Martin

Fatima Martin, principal at Gems New Millennium School, added another perspective: ‘It’s not so much about the lack of availability of women role models, because those are plenty,’ she says. ‘It’s more about projecting those women as role models to the little girls.’

Dr Moukayed also points out that having to choose a career path at a very young age, when girls are especially subject to external influences, may end up with girls choosing a major that they perceive as easy rather than interesting, or end up with their parents choosing for them. ‘Maybe at a young age, it fazes students that science is going to be such a rough environment – and it can be a rough and bullying environment, it can be harsh. Young people who generally don’t really know what’s out there in the world are best advised to ask as many people about their professions as possible. Because they’re making a very hard choice at 16 years old. And then in their 20s, about to graduate, they feel like they’re stuck doing something they don’t like. Maybe it’s something they were pushed into by their parents.’

Raya hopes to change that through her work. ‘Especially in the case of young girls, who tend be self-conscious about being considered nerdy, and who sometimes don’t want to be associated with science, I want to redefine what it means to be a scientist. It’s up to us to serve as role models.

‘My advice to young girls is to go into science if they’re passionate about it, and not be afraid. Science is potentially the most important thing to humanity, and going into this field, they’d be contributing greatly. I think what [US physicist] Lawrence Krauss said is true: Science really does teach us to go beyond ourselves.’

‘I think students don’t have enough advisers at a high school level guiding them,’ adds Dr Hanifa. ‘So I would like to tell them that they can contribute their ideas, anything big or small, to universities. Masdar’s doors are open to all students to contribute and research their ideas. And many supervisors can help them.’

‘We’ve seen over the years that even though boys are very passive while they’re still trying to find their area or domain of expertise until they’re 10 or 11 years old, by the time they’re 13 they just shoot up and become really strong in science, maths, and analytics, while the girls would still be struggling to find their feet, and that’s where I think the school makes the biggest difference in giving them opportunities to pursue, the confidence to be resilient and to push forward in science,’ says Fatima.

Dr Moukayed also points out that femininity and an interest in science are not mutually exclusive. ‘Maybe some of the stereotypes are out there. Maybe people think it’s geeky, or not feminine. That’s wrong – you can take care of yourself and all aspects of your feminine life, and still be able to take pride in one of the most precious things you have: your mind, your ability to think, your intellect, your confidence to project very complex things. Women are very intelligent beings. Their intelligence can be directed towards many different areas, and that includes the analytic side. Women can do it.’

‘I believe our culture tends to be a big barrier to us pursuing our dreams,’ says Maryam. ‘Because our ancestors, or our parents’ parents, they never thought of women as capable of pursuing a career and following their dreams, and our culture is so important to us, that this idea starts to oppress us. But this generation is starting to think outside the box, understand that our culture isn’t meant to oppress us, and do what they want to do.’

Dr Hanifa says the UAE University, which she graduated from, encouraged her in many ways, and pushed her to apply to the L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science award, which she went on to win. ‘The UAE is still in a development stage, where things are getting better. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done. But now we’re becoming more globalised and more open minded,’ she says.

Dr. Moukayed believes that the UAE does significantly better with regards to opportunity for women in relation to the global scale, and that’s because the UAE recognises the importance of science and technology.

‘I can tell you that I feel freer as a woman in the UAE,’ she says, adding that ‘this world needs a seamanship of many skills together to function. We can’t all study the same thing. We need diversity and variety, or else it would be a boring world. The economies of nations rise upon technology, science, good education and medicine. These need to be prime investments in any nation. That’s what we’re doing here in the UAE.’

Sarah Amiri

Evidence of this advancement in the UAE includes the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre, which has a workforce that’s 40 per cent women. At the helm of the Emirates Mars Mission science team, which is 35 per cent women, is Sarah Amiri, who works as the mission’s deputy project manager and science lead. ‘Where the rest of the world is struggling with getting women engaged in science and technology, the UAE’s numbers when it comes to science and technology are unique,’ says Sarah. ‘More women going into science and technology goes against all the studies that have been done internationally. 
I think it’s because there wasn’t any distinguishing when it came to universities, they were open to women, and the support that they were given for tertiary education was the same as the support given to men; in some cases, women were even subsidised more to enter universities and stay in those fields that aren’t dominant.’

Dr Moukayed believes Shaikh Mohammad would make a natural scientist. ‘Because he has this attitude that is ambitious, he wants to push and explore. If the leadership is like this, then it makes it easier for young people to model that.’

On the average age of scientists and engineers in the Emirates Mars Mission being 27, Sarah says ‘giving such a monumentally large and ambitious project to a team of people under 35 is a clear message that there is leadership in the region that believes in the youth, and is willing to bet on their capabilities and on providing them with the right tools that will enable them to deliver on such a large goal.’

‘We are the youth, if we’re not going to do anything, who is? Who’s going to help our generation? If you want to do something, start today and not tomorrow,’ says Maryam.

Nina of EpiBone believes that interest in science is fostered at a very young age. ‘If girls get dolls, and boys get Lego, then we’re likely to encourage narrative skills as opposed to analytical and building skills, based on gender.’

Lego recently announced that it is releasing a Women of Nasa set to educate people about the contributions of women in STEM. The new set will include miniature Lego figures of Nasa scientists Katherine Johnson, Margaret Hamilton, Nancy Grace Roman, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, as well as accessories like books and space crafts.

‘The reason why I’m into diversity and inclusion is about excellence,’ says Dr Newman. ‘We have got to get people to Mars. It’s really hard. We need the best and the brightest. This is nothing about political correctness or reaching a quota. It’s about getting the best people in the world, or we’re not going to succeed. Excellence is equal to diversity and inclusion.’

So, in the words of Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, ‘yes, they let women do some things at Nasa, Mr Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses. Have a good day.’

Upcoming science and education events

1. Children’s City at Dubai Creek Park features several science-related experiences for children. Our two favourites are the Space Exploration interactive gallery, where children can learn about aerospace and physics in a fun way, and the planetarium, which screens educational science shows over a full dome screen.

2. NYU Abu Dhabi is hosting the Girls Education Network Leadership Development Workshops on April 9, 16, and 23 from 5pm-7pm, which are part of a leadership development programmme for young girls to cultivate understandings of themselves in order to mindfully engage with the world around them. It’s led by female university students.

3. You can sign up kids aged between five and 10 for a science, technology, and engineering camp at STEM for Kids, to be held at the Ontario International Canadian School in Mirdiff, March 26 to April 6. Kids will get to learn about things like robotics, air pollution and aerospace in a fun and interactive space. Dh275 to Dh950. Register at stemforkids.ae.

4. This year’s Think Science Fair will be held at Dubai World Trade Center from April 18-20. The fair includes motivational sessions, physics and chemistry entertainment and discussion panels.

5. One of the biggest digital and technology events in the UAE is Gitex, October 8 -12 at the Dubai World Trade Centre, and booking is open on gitex.com. Learn about the latest solutions, ideas and innovations in consumer tech.