Mechanical Engineering featured

‘Crisis? What crisis?’ — How Middle Eastern women fell in love with STEM

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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Exploring Britain’s ‘Gender-Investment Gap’: Why It Still Pays To Be A Man

Just eight per cent of venture capital money went to all-female founding teams in Europe last year, at least that is according to Atomico’s 2019 ‘State of European Tech’ report.

And although this is technically a fourfold improvement on 2018’s report findings (which pegged the number at two per cent), the number is still distressingly low.

Meanwhile at home in the UK, a British Business Bank report has found that, for every £1 invested in venture capital, all-female teams receive less than 1p. Mixed-gender teams make up 10p of all investment. The remaining 89 per cent comes from all male teams.

Small minorities, large gaps

The biggest reason behind the huge discrepancy in the gender investment gap is mainly down to the fact that there is only a very small number of women-led companies to begin with. More women entrepreneurs are needed to normalise the presence of women in spaces that are typically male-dominated.

Another reason behind the gap may be that just 13 per cent of venture capitalists are female, a discrepancy that allows unconscious biases to take root. For example, researchers at the Lulea University of Technology found that financiers often describe male and female entrepreneurs differently, sometimes revealing pejorative stereotypical views of women in the process.

For example, women were more likely to be viewed as “young and inexperienced” whereas young men were considered “promising”. It seems that as a society, we automatically place the characteristics of what makes a successful entrepreneur on the male candidate, to the disadvantage of the female. The same Leulea study also found that women were, on average, offered significantly less funding that they asked for, and were also (unsurprisingly) denied financing on more occasions.

Tackling unconscious biases

The World Economic Forum has reiterated many times why it thinks there should be more gender diversity in senior roles within venture capital companies. And in the UK it is not just the senior roles that are the issue, as about 50 per cent of investment teams have no women on them at all.

This could all be solved with a more balanced management team, with a more visible presence of women. Venture capital firms and investors should not undersell their importance when it comes to making a difference, and the role they can function as a playing field leveller. Currently, the World Economic Forum is trying to counter the imbalance by advocating its own pool of funds for women and other under-represented entrepreneurs only. The mindset that men — and men only — can be successful needs to be done away with, no matter how much they resemble some of the world’s most successful billionaires.

Other alternatives

But bolstering investors’ defences against unconscious bias is not the only way forward. Venture capital money can be secured from other options. One is the so-called ‘angel investor’ method. Where high net-worth individuals see promise and give a helping hand. Winning over angel investors is all about networking and building the right relationships with the right people at the right time.

An opposite route lies with crowd-funding. An option that, in theory, doesn’t require previous networking connections. And then there is a sort of middle-ground between the two: so-called ‘university incubators’ or commercial companies with links to the universities. The latter can be really handy for entrepreneurial female students.

Women, entrepreneurship & the future

Increasingly, work is underway to figure out how such a wide gender discrepancy came to be. Findings from Oxford Brookes University believe it is practically down to a lack of reliable women mentors to show the way. And as a consequence of that, a lack of well-connected networks. It is currently working on a way to create an ‘entrepreneurial pathway’ for women.

But progress is slow. Unbelievably slow. For example, the World Economic Forum reckons that it could take over 250 years for the gender pay gap to close at the current pace of change. Hopefully, a greater awareness of the male-female discrepancy will speed things up a lot.

There is a financial incentive, too. For example, a study by First Round Capital found that companies with a woman in the lead performed 63 per cent better when compared to all-male founding teams. Sure, the sample size isn’t enormous, but regardless the growing recognition is there that companies don’t just “get by” with female leads. They flourish.

This article was written by Eliza Cochrane, who works for an asset and fund management company based in Essex.