Helping Emirati women launch Stem careers a 'national priority', says UAE envoy

Six in 10 UAE university graduates in Stem subjects are female, but more work is needed to help them progress

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Sarwat Nasir. News. Mars Mission. Engineer Hessa Al Matroushi attends an event at Burj Park to celebrate the Hope probe going into orbit around Mars. Tuesday, February 9th, 2021. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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A UAE envoy said developing career paths for Emirati women in the core fields of science and technology should be a "national priority" and high on the global agenda.

Fahad Saeed Al Raqbani, UAE ambassador to Canada, said bolstering female participation in growing sectors was crucial to provide the "jobs of the future".

Mr Al Raqbani said that while women were making significant strides in Stem subjects at university level, there was still work to be done in some fields.

Stem is the widely used umbrella term for education courses focusing on careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Mr Al Raqbani welcomed the large number of women graduating in Stem subjects at UAE universities.

"However, when we look at other Stem fields, such as the nuclear field, women represent approximately only 20 per cent in the UAE and Canada," Mr Al Raqbani said during a webinar co-hosted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the UAE embassy in Canada and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.

"Given that Stem careers are the jobs of the future, promoting the advancement of women in the Stem fields is not only a domestic priority for the UAE, but part of our international approach and policy in empowering women globally."

Fixing the 'leaky pipeline'

Unesco figures state 61 per cent of UAE graduates in Stem subjects are women, compared to 57 per cent across the rest of the Arab world.

But concerns have been raised over the so-called leaky pipeline in Stem, in which many women are entering careers in which representation drops in higher-level positions.

Shaima Alsuwaidi, an Emirati PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, called for action to support the career progression of women.

"One thing that I've always noticed and wondered about is how there's a large percentage of [Emirati] women in early career or at the PhD level, but then once you look at professors or researchers who have their own labs, that percentage really decreases," said Ms Alsuwaidi during the webinar.

"There must be something that's happening in the system during that transition, or that switch from early on to having your own like lab or leading your own group that isn't very supportive of women.

"I think that's something that we need to talk about more and figure out where the problem is happening and hear from the women who are facing those struggles."

The National has previously reported that part-time jobs, flexible hours and shift-based work could help Emirati women pursue Stem careers.

Data published by the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority in 2017 showed that close to 60 per cent of Emirati women were active in the workforce by their mid-20s.

But this fell as they entered their 30s, a time when many women have children. Employment dropped significantly among Emirati women in their 40s.

Role models are key

Ms Alsuwaidi said it was important for young women to see other females making a mark in their chosen career.

"If you get to see examples and you get to be a part of the Stem environment early on, that really plays a huge role," she said.

"I think that one of the challenges is being able to see people who act like you or look like you ... if you don't have that, it can be a bit scary for you to enter a field that's very cut-throat."

She said it was important for Emirati women working in Stem fields to be role models for those following in their footsteps.

“I think what inspired me and what I would like to hopefully do for other women in Stem is just be able to talk to people who are honest, and who share with you their true experience, not just the happy bright side but the ups and downs," she said.

Changing attitudes

When Hessa Al Matroushi started work on the Emirates Mars Mission in 2014, she looked for Emirati graduates with science degrees but while she found engineers, finding Stem graduates proved a challenge.

“We found engineers, but we didn't find people who were employed in sciences, like physics or chemistry … we could find only a few of them," said Ms Al Matroushi, who leads the science team for the Emirates Mars Mission.

“We were asking the question why and one reason was that parents were not supporting such degrees because they couldn't project what kind of career their children would have if they went into such majors.

“They couldn't see the potential of such majors. They thought if you studied maths you could only be a teacher.

“We understood that we had to change the mindset of people, not only pupils but parents as well.”

Ms Al Matroushi's team created opportunities for learners to engage in science and reached out to parents through events and workshops to open up the dialogue and address their concerns.

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Updated: January 26, 2023, 10:22 AM