Women in the United States and the Arab world face challenges and barriers to their entry and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Challenges in the United States occur across the pipeline, from the youngest students to the highest levels of achievement. In contrast, in the Arab world, the percentage of women majoring in STEM is high—ranging from 60 to 80 percent. The main obstacles are related to career and social barriers. The first session of the workshop, chaired by Ameenah Farhan (Kuwait University) and Sapna Cheryan (University of Washington), investigated and discussed barriers related to stereotypes and career challenges, work-family issues, and the role of cultural ideologies in selecting careers.
Presenters to explore the Arab context included Nagwa El-Badri (Zewail City of Science and Technology, Egypt), Malak Abed AlThagafi (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia), and Munirah AlAjlan (Kuwait University). The second half of the session focused on the United States, with presentations by Lin Bian (Cornell University), Adia Wingfield (Washington University in St. Louis), and Erin Kelly (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Nagwa El-Badri, director of the Center of Excellence for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, Zewail City of Science and Technology
(Egypt), raised a theme referred to frequently during the workshop: Arab women are not underrepresented in STEM education and careers; but while positive examples of success by Arab women in STEM fields are abundant, participation is broadest at the base and tapers toward the top leadership positions. Her presentation focused on factors that lead to the decline of women’s success in STEM as they rise in the ranks and offered a road map for better representation of Arab women in the STEM fields at all levels.
As an example of the benefits of involving women, a team of students in Cairo won first place in the Enactus World Cup held in Silicon Valley, competing against groups from around the world.1 The mostly female team formed a social enterprise that markets and sells organic sanitary pads to rural women. El-Badri noted that the female participants could recognize and respond to a health and social need that affects more than half of women and girls in low- and middle-income countries.
Gender equality is important in STEM fields, she summarized, for five reasons: (1) Women deserve equal opportunity as a basic human right, (2) equality is necessary for sustainable economic growth, (3) women can better represent women’s issues in STEM fields, (4) equality is important for power balance and can protect women from biases and bad behavior, and (5) women in higher academic positions can help improve academia.
Women remain underrepresented in research and development in every region of the world, ranging from 47 percent in Central and Eastern Europe to 19 percent in South and West Asia. As a point of comparison, women compose 37 percent of the STEM research and development workforce in the Arab States and 32 percent of researchers in North America and Western Europe, according to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (see Figure 2-1).2 The percentage of female students enrolled in higher education engineering, manufacturing, and construction programs is similarly low, with the highest concentrations in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Considerations of the role of women in STEM must start with literacy, El-Badri contended. In the Arab world, literacy overall is rising and the gap between females and males is narrowing. In 2015, literacy among female youth ages 15 to 24 was 88.7 percent, compared with 77.4 percent in 1995. Literacy among male youth was 93.5 percent in 2015, compared with 88.5 percent in 1995.
2 For more information, see http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs51women-in-science-2018-en.pdf.
El-Badri also noted “differences related to culture, socioeconomic status, and so on,” among countries considered part of the Arab world. There seem to be no barriers to women entering STEM fields in universities in many Arab countries, especially in natural sciences, health, and medicine, and especially in the Gulf States, including Kuwait. Women are well represented as educators in these universities as well. “The problem,” said El-Badri, “is the pyramid,” in which many women enter the workforce at the bottom but are much less represented at the top. This does not just occur in Arab countries, she pointed out. For example, in Canada, according to the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, women constituted 58.2 percent of full-time undergraduate students but only 13 percent of university presidents. In contrast, men were 41.8 percent of the undergraduate population and 87 percent of university presidents. There are arguments for and against a quota to increase leadership opportunities, she noted.
The disparity does not just occur in STEM fields, and she referred to embedded systemic biases as contributing factors. Definitions of
“masculine” and “feminine” in the Oxford English Dictionary reveal some of these biases, for example. “What is holding women back from top jobs?” she asked. Several reasons, she said, referring to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey: Women are often held to higher standards, are deemed “not ready” for more senior positions, have family obligations, or have not been able to make sufficient connections. Focusing on the gender gap in STEM fields, research has pointed to gendered socialization, the influence of peer groups, stereotypes of STEM professionals, institutional bias, and family responsibilities.3
El-Badri then turned to an Egyptian case study on supports and barriers for gender equity in STEM education. According to qualitative interviews, family and social support and barriers; personal qualities of self-efficacy, persistence, and resistance; and school-level support and barriers all play a role in women’s participation in STEM. In sum, challenges include the following:
- Ignoring the success of women.
- Enforcing women’s traditional roles.
- Lack of perception by many women to view challenges in promotion as discriminatory.
- Reluctance by many female scientists to introduce the gender factor as relevant to their work.
- Portrayal of women in the media.
To El-Badri, media portrayal is a particularly important factor. Women are rarely portrayed as successful competitors, including in science. Women scientists should be presented as role models in media (especially television and social media), mentoring programs, and educational materials. Recognition, including special awards for women in STEM, grants for girls, and work reentry grants, are also important, she suggested. An important first step, she concluded, is simply ensuring that women’s first names are included in articles, books, and other materials.
3 Reinking, A., and B. Martin. 2018. The gender gap in STEM fields: Theories, movements, and ideas to engage girls in STEM. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research 7(2). https://naerjournal.ua.es/article/view/271.
Malak Abed AlThagafi, director of the Saudi Human Genome Lab, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia), is a scientist, physician, and entrepreneur who returned to Saudi Arabia after studying at three postgraduate institutions in the United States. When she returned 4 years ago, she established a laboratory in Riyadh, a city unfamiliar to her. She agreed with the view stated by others that women in STEM are more affected by promotion than entry-level issues in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, and that women in science who are striving for positions of power face challenges. As a new principal investigator, she had to wear multiple hats related to management, budgeting, research, and other areas. In addition, she said, “As a new leader, I also had to choose which leadership style to wear.” She chose a strategy known as intentional leadership.
AlThagafi’s genomics lab at King Fahd Medical City began as an all-female team and now, several years later, the researchers and other team members (including a genetics counselor and pathology resident) are almost all women. Intentional leadership embodies three strategies: to foster self-esteem, encourage collaboration, and support mentor programs for herself and members of the lab. She finds that her female colleagues strive for harmony, are confident and intelligent, and want to change stereotypes about women’s abilities and success. She stressed the importance of mentors, especially for female scientists, to help identify and address misconceptions and create a strong, inclusive research environment in a traditionally masculine community. Mentorship can counteract the lack of role models for many female researchers and overcome the confidence gap when women question their own abilities.
AlThagafi noted the importance of mentors in her own career, including a physician who treated her in Saudi Arabia and a professor at Georgetown University. Science empowers women, AlThagafi stressed. It helps women around the world, including in the Arab world, build bonds with each other and achieve success.
Munirah AlAjlan, an English as a Second Language instructor at the College of Engineering and Petroleum, Kuwait University, presented a sociolinguistic case study of female engineering students at Kuwait University. To design the study, AlAjlan drew on previous research that investigated
women in engineering, as well as studies that confirm the role of a narrative approach in research. Her study took place at Kuwait University College of Engineering and Petroleum.
The study used semistructured, one-on-one interviews with six female engineering students about their experiences at Kuwait University. They were all 22 to 23 years old and in their fourth, or senior year, at the college. The analyzed data included generic stories to which the women would respond. AlAjlan drew on the three levels in Bamberg’s Positioning Theory:4 (1) positioning the self in the story world (i.e., how speakers construct their identities within the events of the story they tell), (2) positioning the self in the interaction world (i.e., how speakers construct their identities with the listeners), and (3) positioning the self in the circulating discourses (i.e., how speakers construct their identities according to the cultural and master narratives in society). The researcher coded the interviewees’ responses to see how they related to these three levels. The study also used the interviewees’ comments to try to answer three research questions:
- How do the biographical accounts that were narrated in the interview assist the interviewees to position themselves and others within the narrated events?
- How are the women in the study positioned as engineering students in the research interview setting?
- How do the women in the study construct a female engineering identity toward the wider discourses of being females in the engineering context?
AlAjlan categorized the women based on Josselson’s Theory of Identity Development in Women as gatekeepers, pathmakers, searchers, and drifters.5 AlAjlan said she chose slightly different categories for the Kuwaiti women according to the narratives they told. “Assertives” stated they chose the engineering profession and are seeking a career in the field. “Trailblazers,” in addition to proving their ability in engineering, wanted to go beyond the default to excel in their profession. “Drifters” did not intend to continue with an engineering career. AlAjlan also identified several of the women as feminists who are more politically active in seeking gender
4 Bamberg, M. 1997. Positioning between structure and performance. Journal of Narrative and Life History 7:335-342.
5 Josselson, R. 2017. Paths to Fulfillment: Women’s Search for Meaning and Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
equality. Overall, she said her analysis of the narratives revealed that the women are ready to join in with male counterparts in the various areas of engineering and reject notions that they are insecure in their profession.
AlAjlan plans to use Josselson’s identity development model and investigate the women’s identities over time.
In a discussion session, presenters and others around the table addressed the differential career paths between women and men in Kuwait. Many men in Kuwait go into the military, positions within the Ministry of Interior, or private business. One participant suggested, based on her own observations, “Women tend to be more conservative and seek academic or government jobs, while men, especially younger men, are more open to entrepreneurial jobs. We have to train women that academic and government jobs are limited, and they have to be more open to the whole range of opportunities.” Yet another participant pointed to generational differences; in her view, younger women are embracing change. More males than females also go abroad on Ministry of Higher Education scholarships. El-Badri said more men study abroad in Egypt as well, often because of a family’s opposition to the daughter leaving. AlThagafi said the percentages are about the same in Saudi Arabia.
One participant referred to the higher entrance and attrition rates in the biological sciences compared with math and physics in the United States. “In my [older] generation, the barrier to entry was higher. Women scientists walked in knowing it was going to be hard, so we were sort of immunized to the adversities and were prepared,” she observed. She wondered whether this characterized math and physics today, thus leading to fewer entry-level numbers but also lower attrition. “Perhaps this workshop could discuss strategies to develop resilience to adversity, especially for women who are unaware of the situation when entering the field,” she suggested.
Referring to the Arab context, women have an additional challenge in finding work and advancing. “Some women remain stuck,” said one participant. “Men have an additional advantage to network and collaborate outside of business hours. That’s how they can get supported and connected to leaders in nonformal ways.”
A professor commented that while the medical school student body at Kuwait University has more females than males, the females tend to go into family medicine and other less surgical specialties. “This could be a
preference from the female students themselves, or it could be resistance from certain subspecialties that are considered more masculine,” she said. “Mentorship is definitely lacking in higher ranks.” Although she has not studied this conclusively, she also noted that women retire younger than men in Kuwait, thus removing these role models from the workforce earlier.
Lin Bian, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, has focused her research on trying to explain gender gaps in the STEM domain and variability within STEM and non-STEM domains. As context, she noted that women tend to be better represented in some fields than others. In STEM fields, for example, more women pursue biology compared with computer science and physics. Similarly, in non-STEM fields, women are well represented in art history and psychology, but are outnumbered by men in economics, philosophy, and music composition (see Figure 2-2). The hypothesis for the gap rests on two factors: First, the “brilliance=men” stereotype assumes that women are not as likely as men to be brilliant or intellectually gifted. Second, according to field-specific ability belief theory, certain fields require a “spark of genius.” Cimpian and colleagues found initial evidence of this theory through a nationwide study of about 1,800 academics in 30 disciplines.6 The academics were asked to rate aptitudes needed in their given field and the extent to which a “special aptitude that can’t be taught” is required. The results show that the more a field emphasizes brilliance, the lower women’s representation is at the Ph.D. level.
Bian and her team investigated the developmental roots of the gender gaps, and how brilliance came to be more associated with males than females.7 She summarized three studies: (1) What is the development of the gender stereotype about brilliance? (2) How does the gender stereotype affect girls’ interest toward activities that require brilliance? (3) How does gender stereotype affect children’s bias against other activities requiring brilliance?
6 Leslie, S. J., A. Cimpian, M. Meyer, and E. Freeland. 2015. Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science 347(6219):262-265.
7 Bian, L., S.-J. Leslie, M.C. Murphy, and A. Cimpian. 2017a. Messages about brilliance undermine women’s interest in educational and professional opportunities. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76:404-420.
Gender Stereotypes and Brilliance
In the first study, 48 boys and 48 girls ages 5 to 7 were shown a photo of a man and a woman. They were asked to select which person was smart and which was nice. Boys in the three age groups were more likely to choose the male as smart, as did girls once they reached age 6. When shown photos of children and asked who did better in school, girls were more likely to think the girls received better grades. Bian said the results indicate that even though girls perceive that girls do better in schoolwork, it does not buffer against the belief that boys are smarter. If children’s perceptions about grades
are not the sources of their stereotypes, this opens up questions as to where they do look to infer intellectual differences between men and women. Bian summarized the study as follows: (1) at the age of 5, both boys and girls attribute more intelligence to their own gender; (2) starting at the age of 6, girls become less likely than boys to associate intelligence with their own group; and (3) girls’ endorsement of this stereotype is unrelated to their perception of school achievements.
Gender Stereotypes and Girls’ Interest Toward Activities that Require Brilliance
Bian’s second study attempted to answer whether this negative stereotype affects young girls’ motivation, leading them to avoid activities said to require brilliance. In this study, 64 6- and 7-year-olds received descriptions of two games, one described as for children who are “really, really smart,” and the other for children who “try really, really hard.”8 They were asked if they would want to play the games, with the prediction that the girls would show less interest toward the “really, really smart” or “brilliance” game. While boys and girls favored the hardworking game to the same extent, the messages about the importance of being smart undermined the girls’ motivation to choose the brilliance game.
In a related set of questions, the children were told about a really smart child and asked whether the child was a boy or a girl. The girls were less likely than the boys to guess the smart child was their own sex, which was related to their lower interests toward the brilliance versus the hardworking activity. In summary, (1) 6- to 7-year-old girls’ interests toward an activity was undermined by the messages emphasizing the importance of being smart, and (2) young children’s beliefs “about who is likely to be brilliant are one of the factors that guide their decisions about which activities to pursue.”
Gender Stereotype and Children’s Bias
The third study involved 192 children ages 5, 6, and 7 to determine whether this negative stereotype affects children’s evaluations of girls’ competence in activities said to require brilliance. In this study, the children were
8 Bian, L. 2017. The roots of gender gaps: Investigating the development of gender stereotypes about intelligence. Ph.D. thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2142/97324.
presented with two games, one of which required someone “really, really smart,” and asked to form a team. They then chose from six photos (three girls, three boys) whom they would want on their team. Fewer girls were chosen for the game requiring brilliance, including selection by other girls.
Conclusions and Future Studies
Across the three studies, Bian drew the following conclusions:
- The negative stereotypes about women’s intelligence begin to be assimilated in the early elementary-school years.
- This stereotype immediately begins to affect girls’ activity choices, leading them to avoid the activities described as requiring brilliance.
- This stereotype also leads children to exhibit bias against females in contexts perceived as requiring brilliance.
Current and future studies will look at the sources of this stereotype and how to block its negative effects. For example, the extent to which parents, teachers, and peers have an influence will be further explored.
Adia Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, compared the characteristics of the U.S. working world today with that of the period after World War II. Previous decades offered job security and little turnover, competitive benefits, a robust middle-management sector, but also occupational segregation. Today’s working world offers less job security, flatter organizations, and lower employer-provided benefits, but also more stated support for racial diversity. Today’s “new economy,” as referred to by economists and sociologists, is a transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, with policies that encourage minimal regulation, free markets, and the growth of new technology and innovation. Research into the new economy shows a “frayed contract” between management and labor, with higher levels of workers’ stress and uncertainty. Professional work that is based on technological advances and the knowledge economy remains one of the few routes to economic security, Wingfield said. “Professional work is also the focus of what I call
the diversity dialogue,” she added. “There is more discourse about creating diversity in professional occupations.” Wingfield has looked at how Black professionals in the United States have navigated the new economy, with a focus on Black women in health care.
The health sector reflects economic and cultural changes, is the site of both good and bad jobs, and offers dwindling support for public-sector care, Wingfield said. While Black women remain underrepresented in most health-care professions, the field is trying to diversify. Just as Black women started to gain access, the rules of the new economy, with little institutional support, have taken hold, she stated. They face a number of barriers, including stereotypes about their reliability and lack of access to mentoring.
Black women are about 3 percent of M.D.’s and 9 percent of nurses. Her study involved intensive, semistructured interviews with 75 health-care workers, including doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and technicians. She also drew from TAPS, the American Panel Survey, and conducted field observations in three settings. The findings differed by occupation within the sector, as follows.
Black women doctors cited infrequent experiences with overt racism, although race affected them through structural and cultural processes. Instead, gender became more salient, with women physicians (Black and white) often assumed to be nurses.
In contrast, Black women nurses work in a culturally feminized profession, and they shared many more accounts of explicit, interpersonal racism from colleagues. “Black nurses talked about structural racism being present when it came to scheduling and educational requirements,” Wingfield explained.9 Unlike with the physicians, she said, “they did not receive reminders that as women, they did not belong in the profession, but they received plenty of reminders that as Black women, they did not belong in the profession.”
Black women technicians worked in the least overtly gendered of the three professions but, as technicians, had the least control over their work. Black women and men both cited explicit racial encounters, and women in the sample were more likely to quit as a consequence of those encounters, or they viewed technician work as a stepping stone to what they perceived as a higher-status position as a nurse.
9 Wingfield, A., and K. Chavez. 2020. Getting in, getting hired, getting sideways looks: Organizational hierarchy and perceptions of racial discrimination. American Sociological Review 85(1). Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0003122419894335.
Wingfield drew the following conclusions from her study:
- Gender issues facing Black women in health care are inextricably linked with race.
- Equally importantly, they also vary by occupational position.
- Efforts to foster diversity in health care must attend to the different issues across positions.
- Work in the new economy requires reviving institutional supports/resources in order to provide a functional work environment for Black women in medicine.
Increasing the number of women and racial minorities in the healthcare professions could also improve health-care outcomes, she noted.
Erin Kelly, professor of work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, drew from her own research and other U.S. literature on work-family issues as a challenge to women’s experiences in STEM. “As a sociologist, I take a structural perspective to understanding those challenges,” she said. “From a gendered organizational perspective, I look at what happens within workplaces once people get to them.” She discussed how the “ideal worker norm” creates a structural barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace. She then described a cluster-randomized trial of an intervention she conducted in a large company that shifted norms and created more flexibility for women and men.
False Notion of Choice
Research shows the structure of careers in the United States is built around men’s experiences, Kelly stated, in particular white middle-class males’ experiences. Employees are expected to prioritize paid work above all else, such as by working long hours, relocating when requested, and always making themselves available. It is challenging to meet these norms and raise a family in all fields, including as STEM professionals. Because women are more engaged in child care and housework in the United
States, many “choose” to leave their careers. But, Kelly contends, this is a constrained choice. Using the rhetoric of “choice” makes this decision seem “not discriminatory.”
Becoming a parent increases the risk of exit from a STEM career. According to one survey, 43 percent of mothers and 23 percent of fathers left the field.10 Comparing women in STEM with women in other professional jobs shows a dramatic difference in retention of more than 800 percent, with an advanced degree increasing the odds of exit. “We still can’t explain why there is such a dramatic difference in retention,” Kelly said. “Something is triggering even highly satisfied women to leave.”
Changes to the Ideal Worker Norm
Kelly and colleague Phyllis Moen were involved in research funded by the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several foundations to study how work, family, and health are interrelated; evaluate workplace changes that might benefit workers, families, and firms; and change the public conversation around these issues. Six studies took place.11 Kelly focused her presentation on one of these studies that involved an experiment among professionals in a large information technology company.
A simple flexible work policy is not sufficient, they concluded, as it provides limited access (supervisors needed to approve its use), and utilization is often low because of stigma and career penalties. Instead, they designed a “dual-agenda work redesign initiative” that involved teams sitting together to talk about work expectations and practices. Changes that could work well for the organization and employees (women and men) were identified, such as more opportunities to work from home and more flexible practices. A year later, a randomized control trial showed that men’s and women’s job satisfaction, sleep, a sense of control, and other benefits all increased, while burnout, plans to leave the company, and other negative factors had declined. The changes particularly improved women’s stress and distress levels. “This is a gender-neutral workplace change that ended up also improving women’s well-being,” Kelly said.
10 Cech, E., and M. Blair-Loy. 2019. The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(10):4182-4187. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810862116.
Kelly drew five conclusions from the research:
- It is important to look at what happens within work organizations to understand retention, who thrives, and who struggles.
- Work-family conflicts are part of the story, but other forms of bias are also at play.
- “Choices” to leave after family transitions are constrained and reflect gendered ideal worker norms.
- Current work practices and career structures do not work for many women and men.
- The aim should be to change the workplace, not change the workers or recruit the “right” workers.
Participants asked Lin Bian about race and ethnicity in her brilliance research. In the Kuwaiti context, noted a participant, class and other intersectional issues could also play a role. At this point, all photos used in the brilliance studies are of white adults and children, although both majority and minority children of different socioeconomic classes were queried. She said there seemed to be less of a discrepancy when photos of African American men and women were shown, and Asian women were seen by some children as smarter than Asian men. Toys targeted at girls and boys could also play into these early perceptions, a participant suggested. Bian said she knew of a study looking at descriptions of toys on the Amazon website, but she has not studied this. She and her team are considering introducing different toys or games as one way to test some of these assumptions.
In response to a question, Erin Kelly said she did not know of research that follows whether women who leave STEM return to the field. She pointed to one researcher who has looked at professional women re-entering the workplace (not necessarily STEM) and found they tend to go into nonprofit or other work with a social mission. Related to the workplace intervention she described, her team followed the employees for 3 years. The company was acquired and did not continue the practices.
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