Emirati women ‘leading the way in previously male-dominated fields’

A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that a growing number of Emirati women in traditionally male-dominated fields could boost the economy by 12 per cent.

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ABU DHABI // More Emirati women are choosing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in a trend that could lead to a 12 per cent economic boost, a report says.

More than half, or 56 per cent, of the country’s federal university graduates in these fields, collectively known as Stem, are women, The Economist Intelligence Unit study showed.

Author Trevor McFarlane said women were “leading the way in a previously male-dominated area” and the idea of women studying and working in those fields was more accepted, in part because their academic performance continues to outdo that of men.

Nada Al Meqbali graduated from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in summer last year after gaining a master’s in computing and information science, looking at dust detection using solar imaging.

“In the first batch at the Masdar Institute there were five Emirati women and no men. Emirati women will take risks to be the pioneers,” Ms Al Meqbali said.

“They are strong enough to take these risks and embrace these new initiatives. Many will even take jobs the men wouldn’t take, like the first woman train driver, which was announced recently.”

Families' perceptions of industries such as engineering have also boosted the numbers of Emirati women working in them.

“It’s no longer seen as just suitable for men,” Ms Al Meqbali said.

She now works in the oil industry as a systems analyst and believes women’s growing success in Stem fields is easily explained.

“Women want to compete and prove we can do what men can, that we can be at the same level or better, and this is what’s happening,” Ms Al Meqbali said. “Every day, women are proving this.”

The report, UAE Economic Vision: Women in Science, Technology and Engineering, was sponsored by Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Investment Company (Atic).

Mr McFarlane worked with institutions including Khalifa University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and the Petroleum Institute to survey 394 female students aged 18 to 24, and business and government experts.

Atic's head of human capital development, Hanan Harhara, said there must be more efforts to integrate women into the workforce.

Ms Harhara said that included greater coordination between government, industry and academia.

“The research shows good progress for women in the workplace, specifically in Stem-related fields, but there are still significant opportunities for improvement,” she said.

The research was carried out last October and November. Of the women surveyed, 85 per cent were Emiratis, 70 per cent of whom enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

Half at undergraduate level were in engineering, which remains the country’s most popular course among men and women in sciences – a trend seen across the Arab world.

A study by management consulting firm Booz Allen estimates that, if the UAE follows the pattern of Greece, Ireland and Spain, where female participation in Stem careers grew by 15 to 20 per cent over three decades, this could lead to an increase in productivity and consumption that would boost GDP by 12 per cent.

Aviva Freudmann, editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit report, said: “Women in the UAE have made significant progress over the last 20 years to a point now where they make up 71 per cent of graduates of government universities.

“By global standards, there is some way to go, but progress has been swift and the state’s backing is proving a powerful catalyst.

“The survey shows women now see potential careers in science, technology and engineering as prestigious, interesting and instrumental in contributing to the country’s development.”

Dr Fadi Aloul, an Emirati associate professor of computer engineering at the American University of Sharjah, said the increase in women in Stem subjects was the result of raising awareness from school age, and a growing number of role models and success stories.

“There are also many awards being given to people in these fields, such as the Sheikh Mohammed m-Government awards, which make people realise there is a societal benefit to these subject areas, which are being used to develop the country,” Dr Aloul said.