Article by Eliza Cochrane

Mechanical EngineeringIn the Western world, and especially in the UK and the United States, a crisis looms in engineering recruitment.

The sector is struggling to attract talent altogether, a problem worsened by the fact that almost no women seem to want to train to be engineers. In the UK, a scant 11 per cent of engineers are female, despite women outnumbering men in the general population. The problem has been manifest since at least 2016, when Engineering UK unveiled the alarming recruitment figures in its ‘State of the Nation’ report.

But in what might come as a surprise to Western readers, this is not an issue in the Middle East. In fact, in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, the STEM fields are dominated by women. In an almost reversal of the trend in the UK, nearly 70 per cent of all STEM university graduates in Iran are women.

Two civilisations, world’s apart

The Western world and the Middle East seem to be poles apart on the women/STEM issue. Which begs the question: what is the underlying reason behind such big differences?

Critics in the West will point to what they consider to be the paradox of extreme gender inequality. In the Middle East, they say, women have less personal freedoms and choices in what they do. Whereas on the other side, free to their own devices in liberal democracies, women tend to dominate subjects that are more people-orientated and less about ‘things’. Similar sentiments are echoed by Saadia Zahidi, author of the book ‘Fifty Million Rising’, who has said women in the Western world are freer to pursue alternatives and not worry about them paying less.

On the other hand, it is thought that the Middle East is not influenced by what some might consider to be harmful gender stereotypes. Sarah Peers of the Women’s Engineering Society in the UK is one voice who has spoken out about the pro-masculine ‘Old Boys Club’ culture that excludes and discourages Western women. In the West, young women are often told to pursue their passions. But if gender stereotypes are tantamount, this might incidentally lead to a young woman looking at the cultural expectations around her, instead of following what she thinks would be the right thing to do from a societal point of view.

On the other hand, the reason women tend to be encouraged into engineering in the Middle East and North Africa is because of the job security such a path provides. One popular Arabic TV show from the 1950s had a popular theme tune that Arab mothers reappropriated as a theme tune to their baby girls. The lyrics included lines such as: “And I will say ‘My girl has grown up, she will be an engineer/She’s her mother’s lovely girl’.” But also because, according to one engineering professor, Raja Ghozi, education systems are not so “flexible” and “quitting or changing a career direction for them is a failure, at least when they embark on their engineering education”.

Breaking the stereotypes

Rana Dajani, a Saudi national of Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian heritage, and the first woman from the Persian Gulf to complete a PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge University, has stated that women in the Middle East “don’t feel intimidated” by liking science. She believes this is part of an innate drive amongst women to help progress and improve the conditions in society for all women.

There is one stereotype that stubbornly persists for women in the Middle East, at least according to Hoda Baytiyeh, and that is a lack of confidence when it comes to creativity and innovation. This may also be one of the reasons contributing to a lack of women in the workforce. Baytiyeh says that there is a stereotype that women struggle to turn “knowledge to product” under their own ingenuity, which is an image that should begin to fall away after the public successes of figures such as Rana Dajani.

Problems at home: female workplace participation in the Middle East

But despite the fact that Middle Eastern women seem to have no fear in pursuing a tech or engineering degree, such success does not necessarily translate into the wider world of work. Instead, and self-defeatingly, certain cultural, social, and family pressures can result in many women choosing to stay at home.

The result is that the Arab world has some of the lowest rates of female participation in work. In Iran things are not much better, with the female workforce averaging at around only 17 per cent. In the latter case, this may be a combination of both cultural pressures and the enforcement of several discriminatory laws and regulations that limit how women can operate at work. There are signs attitudes are changing, though. In 2013, Iranian president Rouhani voiced his objection to gender discrimination and promised to work towards a more “equal opportunity” society. The speed of which he has set about implementing this new vision has not awed anyone, but nevertheless, the rhetoric is there.

Women, STEM, and the Middle East of tomorrow

In the Middle East, there may be more conservative cultural values that act as barriers to women wanting to pursue STEM-related jobs, including engineering. But given that the tech industry is relatively new in the Arab and Middle Eastern world, there is no legacy — unlike in the West — of it being solely male-dominated. This means that, in the eyes of many young women graduates, technology is looked on as one of those areas that is full of opportunities, and where everything is possible. This is what makes engineering a very attractive pull for women in the Middle East.

In the meantime, we can expect Middle Eastern women to circumvent hostile workplace norms by leaving the structure and starting their own home-based tech companies, by leveraging through the internet to reach new markets. In fact, the Middle East already has a higher percentage of female-led or founded start-ups than Silicon Valley, with about 1 in 3 having some kind of female genesis.

Engineering is naturally a scientific and knowledge-based sector and will help to propel the Middle East into a plethora of knowledge-based economies. The really exciting thing is, this could also, by proxy, transform the Middle East in ways that will undoubtedly make it richer and more prosperous going forward.

Eliza CochraneAbout the author

Article by Eliza Cochrane of Akramatic Engineering, a sheet metal fabrication company based in London. She is apart of a tiny minority of workers in the UK’s engineering sector that happens to be female — and is working hard to change its image of an ‘Old Boys Club’.


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