Posts Tagged ‘knowledge economy’

Founded as a news weekly magazine in 1933, U.S. News and World Report is well known for its analysis of educational institutions in its annual college rankings. Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on Arab women studying and working STEM fields in the Arab World featured in two recent article in the U.S. News and World Report.

The State of Higher Education in the Middle East article references a Tahseen Consulting study in which we explored the barriers facing women in entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in the GCC in an article in Forbes Middle East. The original article is available at http://tahseen.ae/blog/?p=980.

U.S. News’ article More Arab Women Studying STEM features comments by Tahseen Consulting’s Wes Schwalje on competitions as a mechanism of exposing female students to STEM fields.

Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on skills gaps in the Arab World cited by the Gulf News. We have posted a snippet from the article below. While we agree that more occupation-specific assessments and certifications are needed, there are likely larger employer-level interventions required before such initiatives can really have an impact. We view increasing the resources regional firms devote to workforce investment and development as systemic problems that must be addressed first.

Workforce Investment

While firms tend to focus on paying higher wages for highly demanded skills, macroeconomic trends and rampant market failures of education and training systems suggest longer term approaches to skills formation through continuous, regular on the job training and knowledge transfer are needed (Hall & Lansbury, 2006). Market failures in human capital formation are rampant as education and training institutions struggle to keep pace with economic growth (Lall, 1999). The workforce investment mandate of employers in the 21st century has expanded to include not only training in response to high-performance workplace organization and maintaining skills relevancy in light of competitiveness, but it now also includes the burden of remediating inadequate pre-employment general skills formation due to formal education and training system market and institutional failures. Despite widespread skills shortages and gaps observed in the Arab World, training rates are generally lower as compared to developed knowledge economies with more effective skills formation systems as well as other developing economies such as Brazil, China, and Russia (World Bank, 2010).

Lall (1999) suggests that basic skills, personal attitudes, and competencies developed through formal education and training must be complemented with specific technology-based experience to develop technical skills. Industrial sophistication and competitiveness are derived not from formal education and training but the “practical experience of mastering, adapting, and improving specific technologies” (Lall, 2000, p. 22). Industrialization and skill accumulation are achieved by expansion of the education system alongside the upgrading of the skill intensity of economic activities. For developing countries, this approach reduces the technology gap with advanced countries while raising the demand for higher levels of human capital and concurrently providing the education and training required for economic development (Mayer, 2000). To avoid insufficient individual incentives to engage in skill upgrading, improved performance and productivity gains from skills acquisition are linked with pay when firms exercise wage flexibility (Ashton & Sung, 2002).

The willingness and ability of firms to provide enterprise-based training is rooted in a number of factors. The educational attainment of the workforce and firm managers can serve to reduce investments in firm-level training. Low levels of education amongst a firm’s workforce can raise doubts surrounding the absorption capacity of training while managers with lower levels of education may not perceive a value in providing training. Managerial calculations of the returns to training may be further complicated by informational gaps surrounding technology, future skill requirements, and benefits of training (Lall, 1999). Firms which operate in less competitive, low skill production economies in which short-term strategic planning, little technological upgrading, low rates of capital spending, and an unfavorable economic policy environment for growth are rampant may prevent structured firm-based training.

Lack of internal capacity to provide training can obligate firms to rely upon external private training provision. In cases where the external training sector is underdeveloped and firm sizes are generally small, the inability to achieve scale to minimize training costs and budgetary constraints can serve to reduce the prevalence of firm-based training (Lall, 2000; Ziderman, 2003). This situation is particularly applicable in the Arab World where firm sizes are comparatively small relative to other regions (Schwalje, 2013c). Employee poaching, the tendency of firms to recruit employees with transferrable skills from other firms, may serve to limit firm-based training since training firms incur the cost of employee training only to lose the employee and resulting benefits of the training to another firm. In an environment with high levels of poaching, training firms will reduce training or only offer highly, specific training that is not transferrable to other firms (Acemoglu & Pischke, 1998).

Due to the variety of causes of inadequate enterprise training, policy solutions must be tailored to the root cause. In cases of market failure which deter workforce investment, joint approaches that share the responsibility of skills development between government and business have been effective. Training subsidies allow companies to develop training capacity, but more sustainable, longer-term approaches such as government provided training advisory and technical assistance funded through national training funds and levy-grant schemes are preferred. A notable initiative of this type is the Waqf Fund in Bahrain which trains employees for the Islamic banking sector based on contributions from private financial institutions which are invested in money market instruments and the returns invested in training initiatives. The Human Resources development Fund in Saudi Arabia also works in a similar way. Where the private training sector is weak, the government may fulfill a transitional role to build the capacity of private training providers complemented with public sector provided training. Payroll levy-grant schemes which do not require government financing are effective in limiting poaching. Under such schemes, firms which provide training receive subsidies to fund training initiatives while firms that do not train do not have access to funds since they are more likely to poach employees (Ziderman, 2003).

Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on skills gaps in the Arab World cited by the Gulf News.

Workforce Development

Jacobs (2002) identifies workforce development as the cooperation of education and training institutions, the business community, and governments to provide individuals with rewarding employment as well as firms obtaining skills in the quantity and quality they require. High youth unemployment rates and market failures of education and training systems to create general skills suggest an expanded role for the Arab business community towards ensuring alignment between the skills imparted in formal education and training systems and those demanded in the workplace. Apprenticeships or work experience, often compensated at below the market wage rate, in which work experience is integrated into the formal educational structure and classroom learning can ease the school-to-work transition and ensure employability of young graduates (Quintini et al., 2007).

Including employers in curricula design, identifying the skill sets needed by graduates, standards setting, and accreditation can ensure education and training systems evolve alongside changing labor market needs. Through membership in industrial trade associations, businesses can also serve a governance role in the skills formation system (Ackroyd, Batt, Thompson, & Tolbert, 2005). However, in developing countries the oversight role typically played by scholarly, scientific, and professional organizations may be limited due to lack of capacity. Workforce development ensures that the relevance and employability mandate of education and training systems is fulfilled by minimizing informational asymmetries which reduce individual investment in skills acquisition. Early employer involvement in articulating future skills needs also serves to reduce the need for workforce training investment to backfill general skill deficiencies resulting from poor quality education and training systems.

At Tahseen Consulting our core values reflect our organizational culture and guide our decision-making and interactions. One of our fundamental values is sharing our research with funders, businesses, educational institutions, community organizations, governments, and others through agenda-setting applied research so that we all learn and work together. Our research and insights have been featured in 40+ prominent publications and cited by several international organizations such as the New York Times, Forbes, World Bank. UN, OECD, European Investment Bank, and the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation.

Occasionally we publish articles that are so compelling that others “borrow” word-for-word from our work without proper citation or attribution. This was the case with a recent article that appeared in a prominent academic journal that “borrowed” largely upon the findings of Tahseen Consulting’s research on knowledge economy transitions in the Arab World but failed to acknowledge our work. The article, which can be viewed here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/rsp3.12034/abstract, has since been retracted.

While imitation may be the highest form of praise, even if some people neglect proper attribution, it is clear we have reached an important milestone of success. You can read our article The Knowledge-based Economy and the Arab Dream: What Happened? below as well as explore our cutting-edge work on Arab knowledge economies by following the links below. However, if you find our work useful, please ensure you give us credit where credit is due.

Rethinking Arab Knowledge-based Economies

Knowledge Economy in the Arab World: The Arabization of the Concept of Knowledge Economy

Arab Knowledge Economies Require More Effective Skills Formation Systems to Generate High Skill, High Wage Employment

A key challenge to knowledge-based economic development faced by Arab countries is weak innovation systems. We are honored to have had our research on Arab innovation systems cited by Dr. Mongi Hamdi, former Head, Science, Technology, and ICT at UNCTAD and Head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (now Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs) in his address to the Arab Forum for Scientific Research and Sustainable Development.

Dr. Hamdi cites Tahseen Consulting’s Arab World Research and R&D Situation Analysis and Options in which we highlight several serious challenges that Arab countries face in developing strong science, technology, and innovation systems:

  • R&D spending is significantly lower than in the developed world with very little private sector funding;
  • Regulatory frameworks do not protect intellectual property leading to low levels of patents and stifling private R&D expenditure;
  • Weak government policy making in research and innovation in spite of various studies which have shown that critical components necessary for innovation systems, research, market-oriented R&D, and entrepreneurship need to be concurrently fostered and linked in knowledge-based economies;
  • Weak institutions such as educational systems; institutions conducting basic, applied, and interdisciplinary research; business incubators; funding institutions; and professional societies;
  • Arab scholarly, scientific, and professional organizations generally operate at a low level of activity due to lack of funding;
  • Venture capital, research foundations, and technology transfer funds that promote research are only emerging now;
  • Few multinationals or regional companies have R&D centers in the Arab World. Incentives to promote private sector R&D, innovative research, and recognition of research achievements are limited;
  • R&D and education, especially graduate education, are strongly coupled. However, the research function has gradually been marginalized in Arab universities;
  • University research centers are few and do not have access to critical resources;
  • Research commercialization is depressed due to the lack of business incubators and disconnects between industry and academia;
  • While availability of scientists and researchers is higher than other developing regions, the number is significantly less than OECD countries and other R&D leaders;
  • Few Arab national or regional organizations or governments provide funding to promote international or inter-Arab research cooperation;
  • Absence of travel grants to attend academic meetings has stifled the formation of professional societies, dissemination of research, and international citation;
  • Individual Arab researchers who lack financial support instead increase their level of international collaboration while neglecting regional cooperation or co-authorship with other Arab researchers, or in extreme cases choose to brain drain.

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.

Tahseen Consulting’s conceptual model for the governance of national workforce skills development systems was recently cited in an analysis of Romania’s lifelong learning system for knowledge-based economic development.

View Our Work on National Skills Formation Systems for Knowledge-based Economic Development

A Conceptual Model of National Skills Formation for Knowledge-based Economic Development in the Arab World

Similar to the Arab World, the findings from Romania indicate that government interventions are needed to align the education and training system with macroeconomic development as well as resolve issues that discourage individuals from participating in lifelong learning.

Tahseen Consulting’s research on the national workforce skills required for knowledge-based development is featured in the below report by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta. The report, entitled Technical Skills Mapping for Accelerated Technology-Based Socioeconomic Development, shows that Nigeria faces many of the same difficulties resource-rich Arab countries face in developing national technical and vocational workforce skills for diversification into knowledge-based industries.

The United Nations University’s Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology cited Tahseen Consulting’s research on knowledge-based economies in analyzing knowledge transfer in the MENA countries.

Tahseen Consulting’s Related Work

Read about Tahseen Consulting’s work on creating national skills formation for knowledge-based development

Underrepresentation of GCC women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is increasingly a problem that compromises regional economic and social development. Although national education and employment policies have been directed at increasing female interest and participation in technical and vocational fields, women continue to shun STEM sectors. Why, with so much effort directed at attracting women to STEM fields, are the results so dismal and what should be done?

GCC nations face similar challenges in transitioning towards knowledge-based economies — they remain heavily dependent on natural resources, employ large numbers of nationals in the public sector, and rely on foreign workers to fill the private sector. While demand for technically trained labor in the GCC countries is very high, traditionally much of this demand has been filled by foreign labor. However, further public sector employment generation aimed at absorbing growing national populations may strain national budgets by increasing already high government wage bills. For this reason, GCC governments are gradually restructuring national technical vocational education and training (TVET) systems in concert with introducing labor market reforms to reorient national employment towards the private sector and in-demand STEM fields associated with knowledge-based economic development ambitions.

In the GCC, TVET currently faces an identity crisis in which people are unhappy with the name, the image, and reputation. GCC nations are particularly struggling with increasing the enrollment and employment of women in STEM fields. While some GCC countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have viewed TVET as a key element of educational policy for many years, other GCC nations have only relatively recently focused their attention on improving TVET systems. Educational reforms have been accompanied by social and labor market policies aimed at directing women towards emerging STEM fields. However, 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.

View Our Other Work on Technical Vocational Education and Training in the Arab World

Promoting Entrepreneurship in the Arab World: The Need for Tailored National Approaches

Tahseen Consulting’s Work on Female Participation in Technical and Vocational Education and Employment Featured in Qatar Today

Why Aren’t There More Female Entrepreneurs in the GCC?

Given their high levels of education, women are a substantial underutilized resource for GCC economies. Several international studies have shown increased female labor market participation has a large, positive, and significant impact on economic growth and social development. 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. A challenge in the GCC countries is that many of the emerging industries which have fueled recent growth and job creation, including construction, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, financial services, petrochemicals, and the extractive sectors, are fields which are dominated by males and which tend to employ large quantities of low wage, foreign workers.

CountryLabor Market Participation
Male Nationals (%)
Labor Market Participation
Female Nationals (%)
Bahrain68%33%
Kuwait 61%30%
Oman*45%20%
Qatar 65%35%
Saudi Arabia 63%16%
United Arab Emirates58%20%
OECD Average69%51%
Female labor market participation rates in the GCC significantly lag the OECD average and, in some cases, are amongst the lowest in the world
Source: National Statistical Agencies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE
Notes: * Based on working population age 20 to 60 with the remaining participation rates based on the working age population age 15 to 65.

In recognition of the potentially powerful addition that women can play in regional economies, GCC governments have set ambitious goals to expand the number of women enrolled in TVET programs and working in STEM fields. However, women are still much less likely to study STEM fields, and, when they enter employment, they tend to be concentrated in fields that are inconsistent with national economic ambitions for transitioning to diversified, knowledge economies. While much previous research that has focused on gender-based inequalities in education in the GCC has examined why men are less likely to continue on to higher education, there is significantly less research that has examined why females in GCC nations tend to shun STEM education and employment.

Why So Few? Barriers to Engaging GCC Women in STEM Education

Cultural ideas about what is appropriate work for women specifically limit opportunities to study STEM fields. In many GCC countries, women need support from family members to pursue higher education or work outside the home. Women are often directed by family members away from pursuing STEM programs, despite their interest or aptitude, due to ingrained cultural ideas about appropriate educational pathways and career tracks for women. While female role models can provide aspirational examples for women’s education and employment decisions that might challenge existing cultural ideas, there are very few female role models presently who received TVET training and are employed in a STEM industry who might positively influence females. The lack of female faculty available to teach TVET programs in the GCC may also implicitly send the message that STEM fields are either not appropriate career choices for females or that women are less successful in STEM fields. A growing body of evidence also suggests that educational curricula in the GCC may contain implicit biases that portray women in administrative rather than STEM positions which socializes women to occupy different social and economic roles than males from very young ages.

The secondary level is a crucial transitional period for young people in the GCC – whether they will transition to the labor market after graduation or continue on to university is largely decided by what they study in secondary school and how they perform. However, educational policies that sort students based on grades tend to reinforce existing notions that academic tracks are superior to vocational pathways. By not offering secondary TVET options to girls, the structure of academic pathways in GCC countries also contribute to female preferences for non-STEM programs. For this reason, female enrollment in secondary TVET has remained significantly lower than males across the GCC. While career guidance is one informational resource that can help girls consider broader education and employment paths, career guidance is often focused on coaching students towards non-STEM higher education fields. Higher admissions standards for academic programs than some technical fields feed perceptions that particular academic tracks carry higher social prestige. While GCC nations have launched ambitious sponsorship and scholarship programs, many of these programs perpetuate gender-biased labor market segmentation by incenting women to study fields such as clerical and administrative work over STEM fields.

At the higher education level, enrollment statistics show that women tend to pursue concentrations such as nursing, education, arts, and social sciences, rather than technical or scientific fields. While socio-cultural factors and parental influence play a role in students’ choices of major, GCC higher education policies can serve to limit female students’ options for study. Particularly in emerging STEM fields, many GCC nations suffer from inexplicit licensing and accreditation standards and unclear quality procedures. While formal channels of licensing and accreditation are generally covered by national ministries of education, nationwide quality bodies, or specific TVET regulatory bodies, regulatory gaps exist in TVET systems. For instance, in many countries, private institutions are not adequately regulated. The lack of clear standards for licensing and accreditation undermines public quality perceptions of TVET providers. To improve quality and align curricular standards to international norms, many countries have instituted accreditation reforms. However, the number of institutions involved in licensing and accreditation can often lead to overlapping authorities and complex regulatory environments that confuse potential students and parents regarding the value and employment opportunities associated with particular qualifications.

KuwaitUAEQatar
Major% of total female students enrolled% of total female students enrolled% of total female students enrolled
Arts and Sciences28%19%48%
Education27%3%4%
Business and Economics15%11%23%
Law9%3%6%
Food and Agriculture0%3%Data not available
Engineering17%7%15%
Medicine and Health Sciences3%2%4%
Information TechnologyData not available2%Data not available
Female public university enrollment patterns in the GCC show strong concentration of females in arts and sciences, education, and business rather than STEM fields critical to knowledge-based economic development
Source: National Statistical Agencies of Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar
Note: Data is presented only for countries which have publicly available statistics

What Holds Women Back? Barriers to GCC Female Employment in STEM Fields

A significant body of regional research has found that socio-cultural beliefs about female employment encourage women to pursue professional and administrative positions in the public sector. Jobs that do not fit this cultural ideal are more likely to be deemed inappropriate for females. Broadly speaking, professional and administrative positions in the public sector are considered more prestigious in Gulf countries, which means that women interested in STEM fields will likely be exposed to negative social pressure to avoid such professions in favor of more culturally acceptable roles in the public sector and state owned companies. In addition to generally being confined to employment in only a handful of select industries, women are also much less likely to work in senior management positions. In some GCC countries, occupational segregation puts specific demands on employers which are often unwilling or unable to provide separate facilities for females. Due to the prevalence of small-and-medium sized business in the GCC, many employers are lack the resources to provide the facilities required by occupational segregation. In this way, gender segregation can perpetuate labor market segmentation by decreasing the number of jobs available to women in emerging economic sectors.

Women also encounter difficulties finding employment due to structural labor market features which limit the fields they can enter. While the general direction of knowledge-based economic development is articulated in national level strategic documents in many Arab countries, such documents are less precise about the particular occupations within knowledge-based fields that may emerge as economies develop. In many cases, the rapidly emerging GCC industrial structure and economic planning limitations result in lack of labor market demand signals that lead to widespread skills shortages and gaps in GCC labor markets. In most GCC countries, the extractive industries remain the major economic sector. However, the extractive industries tend to be heavily male-dominated fields that attract few women. High percentages of foreign males in the private sector labor force also encourage women to seek more culturally and socially acceptable employment in fields with more women or those in gender-segregated environments.

The attractiveness of public sector employment is a primary factor behind women’s unwillingness to work in STEM fields. Jobs in the public sector are relatively well paid, not physically demanding, and provide substantial benefits over the private sector. The high concentration of females in the public sector makes it more difficult for females to enter the private sector and more diverse STEM fields because high levels of clustering reinforce social views that the public sector is the only appropriate employer for females. Emerging research also suggest that women face much more significant challenges securing employment than men which makes them seek the job security of the public sector. Women have more difficulty finding their first job in the GCC, and studies have shown that women generally use very few non-government facilitated methods for finding employment. The difficulty women experience transitioning to the labor market and between jobs make them more likely to become discouraged and voluntarily remove themselves from the labor market or retain jobs in the public sector.

Country% of Female Nationals Employed in the Public Sector% of Female Nationals Employed in the Private Sector
Bahrain50%50%
Kuwait*94%6%
Oman65%35%
Qatar88%12%
Saudi Arabia63%37%
UAE89%11%
Across the GCC, females are generally employed in the public sector
Sources: National Statistical Agencies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE
Note: * Some studies suggests that in 2010 79% of females now work in the public sector. However, a definitive publicly available data source is not available

Personal status laws, although recently reformed in many of the GCC countries, also restrict women from entering particular employment fields. The importance of fathers and husbands making decisions about their daughters’ and wives’ choices to work out of the home means that some women who might be interested in pursuing a career in a STEM field may be prevented from doing so. Female employment in particular fields can also be limited by vague language in national labor laws. While all GCC nations have undertaken nationalization policies to increase the number of national workers in the labor force and specifically in crucial private sector professions, nationalization initiatives have historically targeted male dominated industries such as oil and gas. While nationalization initiatives have the potential to open up new avenues to female employment, they may not have the intended effect if nationalization efforts are not focused on industries which women are likely to enter.

What GCC Countries Can Do

Progress towards increasing female enrollment and employment in STEM fields will need to target a variety of national education and training system, labor markets, and individual challenges.

Overcoming Policy, Planning, and Systemic Challenges to Equitable TVET Provision

In order to supply qualitatively and quantitatively sufficient levels of technically trained females to the labor market, national education and training systems must provide females with accessible technical pathways that are responsive to evolving socio-cultural norms concerning female labor market participation and employment in technical fields. Females’ access to STEM fields in many of the GCC countries is limited in part due to few providers who specifically serve women and government and institutional decisions to offer select programs to women that fail to fully cover STEM fields of importance to emerging knowledge-based industries in the region. 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.

Increasing Female Enrollment in STEM Programs

While many females from GCC countries are studying in TVET programs at the post-secondary level, several studies across the region have found that some STEM fields are viewed as a second-best option. To increase the number of females studying in STEM programs at the secondary and tertiary levels, GCC countries will have to institute reforms that increase demand for technical and vocational education by addressing socio-cultural barriers to enrollment. Addressing these barriers will involve interventions and policies that positively influence persistent beliefs about the kinds of students who attend TVET and the post-graduation opportunities available to them. Reforms must center on information and reputation management that increase women’s access to information about STEM education, encourages women to enter STEM fields, and improves the perceived status of STEM education.

Encouraging Women to Enter Employment in STEM Fields

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. As with the decision to enroll in technical programs, encouraging women to work in technical fields requires incentivizing and providing information to women to motivate particular labor market choices. Barriers to female employment are varied and include such issues as family responsibilities, female preferences for certain work environments, and expectations about what types of jobs offer the best pay and benefits. Effective reforms will likely involve structural labor market policies that make technical positions and private sector employment more desirable options.

Increasing Employer Demand for Technically Trained Females

Increasing female employment rates in technical fields will require increasing employers’ demand for female labor in a way that overcomes existing preferences for public sector employment. The focus must be on encouraging private sector companies to hire females. Companies must be convinced of the desirability of hiring females despite some employers in the region viewing females as more expensive and requiring special accommodations. In several GCC countries policy experiments with training and wage subsidy programs have proven effective in incentivizing companies to hire more women.

Tahseen Consulting’s CEO Walid Aradi appeared on Dubai TV’s Money Map to discuss the role of entrepreneurship policy in economic development and meeting the region’s youth unemployment challenge. Aradi sat down with Zeina Soufan, host of Money Map, to discuss Tahseen Consulting’s work on entrepreneurship policies and programs in the Arab World.