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Women in Middle East/North Africa Are Underrepresented in Science and Technology Professions

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The debate that Mona Eltahawy triggered refocused women's issues primarily on the socio-cultural dynamic. However, I would like to address the educational/professional side by commenting on how women in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are underrepresented in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Environmental, and Mathematics.) A few months ago I blogged about how, generally, women in the MENA region are educated in the STEM areas, but do not practice their profession representing their educational background. As a result, I received a lot of pushback on Twitter -- but without any data to support the counterargument.

Twitter debates might be short statements, but the debates themselves are not short lived. I claimed that women are underrepresented worldwide in the STEM professions. Also, I claimed that women were 'somewhat represented' in the MENA region. The rebuttal came from a man in a MENA country arguing that MENA women are studying all fields, especially STEM. By his logic: because they are enrolled in such fields "more than ever" they must be working in these fields. Of course. So I asked him to re-channel his tweeting energy into a formal essay response to post alongside my statement. That did not mean that I agreed with him.

Here is why I disagree: I see MENA women receiving attention for influencing political and social movements, like Manal Al-Sharif and Maryam Durani. But I do not see MENA women receiving attention for influencing the STEM fields. Look at the Time 100 Influencers and note the gender of those that represent STEM fields. I notice two factoids: first, one economist (Elinor Ostrom Christine) plus one technology leader (Virginia Rometty) represented women influencing their fields. Second, none of them are from the MENA region.

Globally, I do not see enough women in the STEM professional fields. The U.S. is not above this underrepresentation challenge either. In the U.S., not enough women are pursuing degrees to address the growth rate potential in STEM fields. There are a couple of reasons to explain this challenge in the U.S., which also might explain MENA's challenges. The three reasons are: income, retention, and invisible barriers.

The first reason boils down to income, or economic opportunity. One American study shows how women from lower-incomes are not pursuing STEM fields from the outset.

In MENA, look at the opportunities that economic privilege has to offer. Look at the Arab subset of countries. In 2012, an Arab newspaper listed the Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Women includes only four women working in the STEM areas: two in science, and two in technology. Not only is this a small representation, but three live in one of the Persian Gulf countries -- where there is more economic opportunity -- but the fourth one does not even live in the MENA region. Also, women who can afford higher university select fields across STEM, often migrate.

Why? This brings me to my second reason. Some, like Dr. Nadia al Hasani, argue that the challenge is not rooted in the fundamental debate of women's rights or fight for equal pay. Her point is outside of Eltehawy's argument. Specifically: women in STEM professions are underrepresented due to 'retention' challenges.

MENA women enter the workforce with their STEM backgrounds but are having difficulty remaining in their positions for a variety of reasons that range from raising children to moving overseas. Like in other countries, MENA women are pausing to raise children and re-entering work life, but they set up small businesses or engage in non STEM related sectors.

When I make the claim that MENA women are 'somewhat' represented, I'm not assuming that women are prohibited from studying STEM areas at every level of education. Though this does introduce my third reason: invisible barriers. Whether discriminatory challenges are in play, that perception contributes towards invisible barriers, which relate to Eltahawy's argument of sociological/psychological barriers.

Let's look at the technology field to review an example of underrepresented women. I attended the ArabNet summit, which Arab and non-Arab media outlets covered. They focused on the entrepreneur gains for women, but missed how women were not participating in one of the Technology competitions. Yes, women applicants competed in the Ideathon contest, great. A woman led team placed in the top three. This was really great. But the Overnight Developer contest did not have women competing -- despite ArabNet's efforts to reach out to women.

Here is an interesting aside: the women were competing in the more 'group oriented' competition where startup teams competed against each other. The first contest was all about individual performance. Th team versus individual participation trend points to some biological and sociological differences between genders.

Noting the gender differences -- especially when addressing the underrepresenation phenomena -- does not have to be seen as negative difference, according to a study that recognizes these differences: "Addressing today's causes of underrepresentation requires focusing on education and policy changes that will make institutions responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes."

So here is my call to action: MENA countries need a public policy platform -- this is not just an international development discussion. It's a local discussion that will be better managed by MENA countries from within. No amount of tweets and heckler responses are going to absolve policymakers in those countries from establishing their own public policy initiatives to ensure that women have the space to use their STEM skills in the workplace.

Ironically, we're using nonscientific methods to comment on scientific fields. Funtabulous. But that only leads us into a heated twitter exchange. Still, I stand by my earlier statement because we see that women are not represented in the STEM fields professionally -- regardless of their enrollment rates in such courses at the university level. This challenging trend applies not only to MENA, but in other regions as well.

Next time, I want to be wrong when the issue of not enough women in MENA represented in STEM fields restarts on Twitter.