Women in the United States and Kuwait have made advances as researchers and leaders in science, engineering, and medical disciplines, yet challenges and barriers remain to enter and advance in these fields in both countries. Building on recent collaborations, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) agreed on convening two workshops to identify evidence-based practices and resources for improving the inclusion of women as full participants in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Each workshop would involve about 40 leaders in academia, government, and business to focus on successful strategies and programs in both countries that increase opportunities for women. Understanding the context for both women and men would also be an integral part of the presentations and discussions. Workshop proceedings would be published in English and Arabic.
Engagement between the National Academies and KFAS began in 2011 when KFAS supported the first Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine symposium in Kuwait, which included U.S. participation. More recently, on October 23–25, 2017, KFAS hosted the 10-year anniversary edition of the International Conference on Women
Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering under the theme “Science Empowers Women.” The National Academies was represented through its Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine.1 In 2018, KFAS collaborated again with the National Academies to host the sixth edition of the Arab-American Frontiers symposium in Kuwait City. The meeting convened more than 100 young scientists, engineers, and medical professionals from the Arab region and the United States to discuss new research advances in big data, air quality, water, the microbiome, and new buildings. KFAS host leaders expressed interest in the National Academies’ model and the extent to which Kuwaiti scientists and engineers could become more directly involved in helping investigate and influence key science-based policy issues in their country.
In 2019, KFAS Director General Adnan Shihab-Eldin met with National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and discussed ways to further consolidate an institutional partnership. Similar to the Arab-American Frontiers Program, they hope this series of workshops will pave the way for further collaborations between the National Academy of Sciences and KFAS.
The first workshop was held October 28–29, 2019, in Washington, D.C., and this proceedings summarizes the presentations and discussions at that event. The workshop was organized by a small planning committee working jointly to establish the agenda and identify speakers.
After welcoming remarks and presentations that highlighted the current situation of women in STEM in Kuwait and the United States, technical sessions included presentations from both Kuwaiti (and, in some cases, the wider Arab world) and U.S. perspectives. Sessions on the first day focused on the challenges and barriers facing women to enter and thrive in STEM as well as evidence of effective programs in both countries for recruiting women in STEM. A keynote address by Huda Akil, University of Michigan professor and recipient of the prestigious Kuwait Prize, closed out the first day of the workshop. On the second day, the third technical session highlighted the effect of curricula structure on the attrition of women in
1 For more information, see https://www.nationalacademies.org/cwsem/committee-onwomen-in-science-engineering-and-medicine.
STEM in the United States, Kuwait, and Arab world, and a concluding discussion among all participants closed out the workshop.
This proceedings presents highlights of the presentations and discussions and is organized to follow the meeting agenda. The workshop rapporteurs prepared it as a factual summary of what was presented and discussed at the workshop. The planning committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteurs and do not necessarily represent positions of the workshop participants as a whole, the planning committee, or the National Academies.
The workshop began with brief welcomes from committee co-chairs Hayfaa Almudhaf (Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, KISR), and Sapna Cheryan (University of Washington). They laid out the general goal of the workshop to identify evidence-based practices to include women in science, engineering, and medicine.
Jim Hinchman, acting executive officer of the National Academies, observed that global challenges related to energy, health, and food supply cannot afford to sideline half of the world’s population from helping to solve them. He noted that the workshop builds on work the National Academies is doing to address bringing more women into STEM fields. Adnan Shihab-Eldin, director general, KFAS, acknowledged that the gender gap reflected worldwide occurs in Kuwait, but noted the country’s long history of advocating for women in education. Nawaf Al-Enezi, representing Ambassador Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, pointed to several memoranda of understanding between the United States and Kuwait related to education and science. He praised the workshop, which he noted falls under the embassy’s theme of women’s empowerment.
Women in STEM in Kuwait
As background to the ensuing presentations, Hayfaa Almudhaf, former senior advisor at KISR, provided a summary of the educational system in Kuwait, with an emphasis on women in STEM fields. Kuwait has a population of 4.2 million with a literacy rate of 95.7 percent. About 15 percent of the population is under the age of 15. The population skews to the middle years because of the high number of foreigners in the workforce. The general education system consists of four levels: kindergarten or nursery, primary,
intermediate, and secondary. Schooling at the primary and intermediate levels (ages 6 to 14) is compulsory, and all levels of state education, including higher education, are free. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education are involved in education policy and development.
Higher education is mostly provided by Kuwait University (KU), although there are also private universities and colleges. Major STEM institutions, in addition to KU, include KISR, KFAS, and the Dasman Diabetes Institution.
KU was established in 1966 and has 17 colleges offering 76 undergraduate and 71 graduate programs. Of its 41,000 students, 75 percent are female. Of note, STEM fields are overwhelmingly female. Within STEM colleges, 80 percent of the student body and 33 percent of faculty are female (see Figure 1-1). Among admitted students in medicine in 2019–2020, 84 percent of KU students were female.
The Ministry of Higher Education provides scholarships for the private colleges within Kuwait and to study internationally. Among those receiving Ministry of Higher Education scholarships to study outside the country, 49 percent are female.
Almudhaf briefly described the scope and missions of KISR, the Dasman Diabetes Institute, the Space Generation Advisory Council, and the Kuwait student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Females are well represented in each of these organizations, for example,
garnering three of the first four scholarships awarded by the Space Generation Advisory Council.
KFAS acts as a catalyst to involve more women. It has helped support a Visiting Chair in Women and Societal Development Studies at the American University of Beirut and sponsors the Kuwait Prize, which has been awarded to several women. KFAS has convened conferences and events to bring together women leaders in science in the Arab world, Almudhaf noted, but “this is the first time the focus is on evidence-based practices, on systems, models, and strategies to empower women in the field.” She closed with an acknowledgment of the pioneering work of Faiza Al-Kharafi, former president of KU, recipient of the Kuwait Prize in Applied Sciences and the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, and a chemist whose work has helped minimize the environmental impact of the country’s oil industry.
Women in STEM in the United States
Sapna Cheryan, professor of psychology, University of Washington, summarized the context in the United States, pointing out both similarities and differences with Kuwait. In the United States, women earn about 60 percent of undergraduate biology degrees, but less than 50 percent of degrees in chemistry and in mathematics/statistics. The numbers of women drop off at the master’s and doctorate levels in many STEM fields, with biology as a notable example. The percentages of women do not drop off as much in computer science and physics between the undergraduate and graduate levels, but the overall numbers are fewer (see Figure 1-2). Thus, issues of recruitment and retention differ across fields. “What this suggests, in the U.S. context,” she said, “is [that] the main issue for computer science, engineering, and physics is not as much retention as trying to get girls and women into these fields in the first place, whereas if you are a biologist, a chemist, or a mathematician, trying to increase representation by women focusing on retention might be a more effective strategy.”
By racial group, white women are the largest group receiving computer science, engineering, and physics degrees, although proportionate to their population, they are underrepresented compared with white men. “This shows that context matters,” she stressed, “not just between countries, but within countries.” Looking at technical jobs in Silicon Valley, women are vastly underrepresented. This means that women are missing out on potentially lucrative positions, and the field is missing out on the perspectives of women.
Cheryan pointed to several reasons for underrepresentation uncovered by researchers—many covered in greater detail throughout the workshop—that include socialization, discrimination, role models (and lack thereof), expectations of success, and work-family conflicts. Cheryan’s own research points to the effect of media (e.g., the popular U.S. television show The Big Bang Theory starred four male engineers) and course-taking patterns in high school. The work indicates that women and girls feel a lower sense of belonging in computer science, engineering, and physics in the United States; in contrast, successful programs have created cultures that signal to women and girls that they do belong in these fields.