Women around the world face a unique struggle: they are continually advised to “close the wage gap” by pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields over liberal arts, and yet many women are prohibited from making such a choice. In some regions of the world, women are socially prevented from pursuing careers in STEM, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Many women feel incredible societal pressured to leave their STEM positions to raise a family, and others must re-locate to find jobs overseas. These issues impact women globally, making it important that women of STEM come together to break down these barriers.
It’s a common misconception that women are underrepresented in STEM because of economic or educational reasons. This issue has little to do with women’s rights- in most developed countries, women have the right to attend university and work in any field they choose. It’s not that women aren’t going into STEM fields; it’s that they’re not staying there- this is often seen in the MENA region, and in the US, we often refer to this phenomenon as the leaky pipeline.
Fortunately, more women are pursuing an education in STEM fields than ever before- in India, for instance, women surpass men at medical programs and key engineering schools in India. The issue is thus not so much with college matriculation; it is with what many women do with their degrees post-graduation. According to a study featured by The Economist, only 21% of the workforce in the MENA region consists of women- while more than half of all university graduates in the region are women. About half of all STEM majors in the Middle East and North Africa are women (according to a 2012 study by OECD), but they are pursuing careers in other fields after earning their degree.
The women in the MENA region are known for their strong desire to work. As times change, more young women wish to pursue careers outside of the home. Women in the region are encouraged to attend university by their parents, but they face resistance when they wish to get jobs in their field. In many cases, their families object to their desire to work- their husbands believe the wives should stay home and take care of the children, while they bring home a paycheck.
These issues exist in other parts of the world as well, but are more prominent in the Middle East and North Africa than other regions. For example, women in the United States and Canada feel much less pressure to stay home and care for their families. In fact, stay-at-home moms and housewives are becoming less and less common in the United States, as women pursue their own professional careers.According to a 2012 Gallup poll, only 14% of women in the United States are considered “stay-at-home moms,” and 56% of all women are employed. This is vastly different from countries like Saudi Arabia, where only 13% of the workforce is made up of women.
What does all of this mean for the future of women in STEM? Simply put, it means women need to come together and support their presence in STEM fields. To take off the cloak of isolation. women must be taught that they can and should pursue their interests in STEM post University, particularly women in undeveloped countries. Without proper encouragement, how can one expect the proportion of women in STEM fields to rise? If young college graduates in the Middle East and North Africa are being told they should not or cannot pursue a career in their field, how can we expect to see stronger representation of women in STEM?
Mentors may be the answer to the global disparage between men and women in STEM fields. Around the world, mentors are helping improve workforces, and STEM fields are no exception. Mentors provide employees and students with guidance they so desperately need to succeed in their field- particularly women in STEM. Women in the MENA region are in need of good mentors and role models, and then they can pay it forward by lifting up the next generations. They need someone they can trust to help them achieve their goals and dreams. Without proper guidance, many women in this region will be persuaded out of their careers by their society, and mentors may be the solution. If women in STEM can mentor new graduates, they may be able to help them fight societal pressures and find their place in a STEM-based career.
Contrary to popular belief, the biggest obstacle most women face when pursuing their career is judgment from other women. Their husbands may ask them to stay at home and take care of the family, but what are they to do when the other women in their lives disagree? They might feel like an outcast in their own family for their desires to share the burden of breadwinning. If women cannot go to their mother, their sister, their sister-in-law, or their best friend and find support for their career choice, it’s understandable that they may not have the confidence to follow through. For this reason, it’s of growing importance that women support each other and come together around STEM on a global scale. We unite, we mentor, we engage, we champion.
At the upcoming Global Women in STEM Conference (#WISTEM2016) we can bring more bright young minds together, driving success and inspiration. We are bringing women together around STEM, giving young, aspiring professionals role models they can look up to. Our goal is to inspire more young women around the world to follow their dreams, despite what their culture may tell them. Dubai is an incredible place of innovation and change bringing some of the brightest minds from all over the globe with a sustainability mindset. It is a perfect setting for a global agenda to advance women. Our world has advanced significantly over the past 100 years, and it’s time to do away with the draconian belief that women belong only in their homes. By empowering young women and encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM, we can all make greater strides towards gender equality in the professional world.
The above topic and more will form the agenda of the Global Women in STEM Conference and Awards 2016 to be held on October 25th and 26th in Dubai, an initiative of the Meera Kaul Foundation. This year’s event will comprise four industry led-tracks, startup pitch, career fair, awards night and the chance to network with global brands like Cisco, Discovery, MT Energy, Abu Dhabi Tourism, SK Telecom, Mercer, IBM and many others. Special thanks to A. Crosser for her work and great assistance with this article.
Julie Kantor is CEO of Twomentor, LLC and Chair of the Global Women in STEM Conference, Dubai. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, women in STEM and her management consulting company focuses on building Mentoring Cultures to both elevate women and Millennials in the workforce. She can be contacted directly at email@example.com