With its second issue released in July, Forbes Woman Middle East is quickly emerging as a leading publication for female professionals in the Arab World. Rather than focus on beauty and fashion like many competing publications aimed at women in the region, Forbes Woman Middle East is aimed at professional women who are trying to make a mark on companies across the region.
Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on female technical vocational education and training and employment in the GCC featured in the July issue. We have posted the article below. In the article, Tahseen Consulting’s Chief Operating Officer Wes Schwalje speaks with Hannah Stewart Executive Editor from Forbes Woman Middle East regarding the barriers facing women in entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in the GCC. In a wide ranging discussion, Schwalje explains the economic impact of the lack of women employed in STEM fields and what GCC countries can do to encourage more women to enter emerging technical fields.
Forbes Woman Middle East: How do the numbers of women working in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields in the GCC compare to men?
Schwalje: The female labor force in the GCC is generally employed in fields such as public administration, education, and social work. In many of the GCC countries, it is not uncommon to find 70% or more of the female labor force concentrated in the public sector. However, differing labor market structures in GCC countries means that women are more willing to work in STEM fields outside the public sector in some countries than others. While the male labor force in the GCC is also heavily concentrated in the public sector, there has been a notable shift towards employment in more diverse STEM fields within the construction, transportation, petrochemicals, and extractive sectors.
Forbes Woman Middle East: Why are there so few?
Schwalje: The structure of GCC educational systems, gender-biased academic offerings, and lack of female faculty serve to dissuade females from enrolling in STEM programs and subsequently entering technical employment fields. Government and institutional decisions to offer select programs to women fail to fully cover STEM fields of importance to emerging knowledge-based fields in the region. In many GCC nations, women also do not have adequate opportunities for exposure to STEM at a young age which means they do not have an opportunity to develop an interest in STEM fields. Social and cultural norms are highly influential in motivating the occupational choices of females in GCC nations and limit the sectors in which females desire to work.
Forbes Woman Middle East: How persistent is this problem across the rest of the world?
Schwalje: Female students in the GCC make up only a small portion of students enrolled in secondary technical pathways that may lead to continuing their studies or seeking employment in STEM fields. Female enrollment rates at the secondary level are significantly lower than OECD countries. While females in GCC countries have much stronger TVET enrollment rates at the tertiary level that are on par with the OECD countries, many women who are trained in STEM fields ultimately wind up being employed in the public sector rather than in the fields they were trained in. The magnitude of these trends, though present in other countries, suggests a unique regional challenge regarding societal and labor market signals that presently push women towards a very narrow selection of socially acceptable employment fields in the public sector.
Forbes Woman Middle East: What are the main barriers holding women back?
Schwalje: The success of females in accessing higher education, in which females now make up the majority of enrollments in nearly all of the GCC countries, to some degree has masked the emerging regional challenge of attracting women to STEM programs and their subsequent labor market entry into emerging high skill, knowledge-intensive, STEM fields. However, many women who attend higher education receive degrees in fields which are not consistent with regional economic ambitions to grow technology and innovation-driven industries. The issue starts from a young age when girls lack exposure to STEM fields and are encouraged to pursue academic fields such as humanities, social sciences, and education. Socio-cultural beliefs and structural labor market features influence female higher education choices away from STEM fields and lead to occupational sorting into a limited number of occupations in the public sector.
Forbes Woman Middle East: What are the implications of low female presence in the STEM fields for societies and economies across the Arab world?
Schwalje: When women are enabled to reach their full potential in the labor force, there are significant social and economic gains. Increased female participation in STEM fields can influence changes in gender role attitudes and can broaden labor market options for women. Low rates of female employment in STEM fields could have very negative implications for regional growth by depriving emerging knowledge-based industries of highly skilled labor. Although labor force participation amongst GCC females remains amongst the lowest in the world, there is potential to attract highly educated females into the labor market and high growth STEM fields in particular. Low rates of labor market participation make it more difficult for women to enter the labor market, particularly in STEM fields or companies with few women. Without a critical mass of other females in STEM fields, women face many barriers to success: they may not be able to create support networks; they may be viewed as invisible and powerless in their institutions; they may face difficulties working with male colleagues; and they may have difficulty advancing in their workplaces.
Forbes Woman Middle East: What can GCC countries do to amend the disparity?
Schwalje: Across the GCC, some STEM options are not open to women, including many advanced engineering sub-disciplines critical to regional development. Addressing the supply of TVET programs means not only increasing the number of options available to women but also ensuring that institutions are female-friendly and offer high quality programs attractive to females. To increase the number of females studying in STEM programs at the secondary and tertiary levels, GCC countries will have to address socio-cultural barriers to enrollment. Addressing these barriers will involve interventions and policies aimed at students and parents that positively influence persistent beliefs about the kinds of students who attend TVET and the post-graduation opportunities available to women. Ease of entry, effective labor market and social policies, and female-friendly workplaces are critical to attracting outgoing technically trained females from national education and training systems to employment in STEM fields. In several GCC countries policy experiments with training and wage subsidy programs have proven effective in incentivizing companies to hire more women.
Forbes Woman Middle East: Do you believe that more attention from faculty advisers might keep STEM women on the academic career track?
Schwalje: In many of the GCC countries, women are practically absent from STEM faculties. Within institutional faculty structures, female educators in the GCC also tend to be concentrated at the lower ends of the academic pyramid. While more attention from faculty advisers could potentially play an important role in increasing female enrollment and employment in STEM fields, research suggests that role models have the most powerful impact on students’ academic success when they share similar background characteristics with students. From this perspective, low numbers of female faculty might perpetuate beliefs that women are not successful in STEM fields. Because women have historically been employed in the public sector in the majority of GCC countries, there are also few female role models outside academic institutions. While there is a value in highlighting the successes of women who are from royal or prominent families, it is unclear to what extent the experiences of such women can serve as aspirational motivation for women. A major challenge in the GCC remains identifying and exposing young women to role models with whom they can more personally identify with.
Forbes Woman Middle East: Could conditioning, via early socialization and gender bias be to blame for the disparity?
Schwalje: Research on educational content in GCC nations has found that textbooks may contain implicit biases that portray women in administrative rather than technical positions. This research suggests that women throughout the Arab region are socialized to occupy different social and economic roles than males, and part of this socialization process occurs in educational institutions at young ages. Prior research has found that textbook content throughout the region continues to portray women as family members, while portraying males in their professions. The way that women are portrayed in textbooks to children, even at young ages, influences girls’ understandings of the appropriate future roles and paths available to them. When women are predominantly portrayed as mothers or in administrative positions, textbooks are re-enforcing socio-cultural norms that women should stay at home or should take predominantly desk-based work in the future. In learning and curricula materials across the GCC, there appears a widespread need to more positively and broadly portray women working in STEM fields.
Forbes Woman Middle East: Are there any signs to indicate positive change in the MENA region, or perhaps examples of Arab women successfully working in this field?
Schwalje: There have been several positive regulatory and policy changes that signify change. Many of the GCC countries have made positive changes to labor laws to guarantee women receive equal pay as men. Yet, females are still limited in terms of the fields in which they can be employed and hours they can work by some national labor laws. The majority of the GCC countries have made significant progress on creating national qualifications frameworks which are important to changing opinions about STEM fields as many people do not currently understand how particular technical or vocational qualifications relate to more academic university degree level qualifications. The UAE’s National Qualifications Authority is now leading regional efforts towards a GCC-wide qualifications framework to increase student mobility and qualification portability regionally.
Competitions are an emerging means via which GCC countries have begun to expose students to STEM fields. In many of these competitions at the regional and international level, the GCC’s young women are excelling. National, regional, and global skills competitions can help attract women to STEM fields. Yet, many of the competitions and experiential opportunities offered in the region tend to be supported by international organizations and multinationals rather than indigenous initiatives supported by the GCC business community.
Forbes Woman Middle East: What advice would you give to young women interested in entering the STEM arena?
Schwalje: For youth in the GCC, following parental advice to seek a role in the public sector was generally very sound in the past due to higher salaries, benefits, and favorable conditions of employment. Nowadays, emerging research done on the returns to education in the GCC suggests that STEM qualifications, and particularly those qualifications which can be earned through two-year technical and vocational programs, are increasingly valued in regional labor markets. For example, evidence from Qatar shows that the rate of return to technical education exceeds that of academic higher education. In Bahrain, the payoff to two-year, post-secondary technical education is also higher than the payoff to a university degree. However, information gaps about the future trajectory of industries and emergent skills needs, the returns to investing in particular skills sets, and projections on the future returns of education and training investments are often unavailable in Arab countries to help students calibrate their education and employment decisions. For this reason, young women interested in emerging STEM fields must seek out information and form mentor relationships with women in their industry of interest. Because career counseling tends to show a strong bias towards academic education in the region, young women will need to make these connections themselves and develop an individual development plan to examine their skills, interests, and values.