By Eric Iversen
Try as people have, getting and keeping women in U.S. engineering programs remain vexing challenges. For a decade now, the numbers have stayed the same: 30 percent of students enrolled, 20 percent graduated. Individual successes like Dartmouth and Harvey Mudd notwithstanding, the overall rates don’t seem to budge.
Meanwhile, in Arab countries, rates of women participating in engineering education have shot past those in the United States. Across the Arab world, in countries both developing and wealthy, women enroll and graduate in noticeably greater numbers.
The reasons vary, and it’s not clear that researchers have fleshed out the whole story. But throughout the Middle East, women’s participation in engineering is notably higher than in the United States. For reasons as diverse as the countries themselves, Arab women exceed their U.S. counterparts in enrolling and completing engineering degrees, and it’s not even really close.
Recent U.S. history
From 1990 to 2000, women’s share of earned engineering degrees in the United States rose from 15.4 percent to 20.1 percent. At this rate of increase, one-third over ten years, we should have seen women earning about 27 percent of degrees in 2010.
The actual result: 18.4 percent.
It ticked up to almost 20 percent in 2014 but still below the 2000 rate after nearly a decade and a half of extensive outreach to girls extolling the opportunities and rewards of studying engineering. Perhaps indicating a break-out, the rate of freshman women intending to major in engineering has gone up from 3.3 percent in 2008 to 5.8 percent in 2014. Until more numbers come in, though, the story remains that women resist the engineering argument.
In Arab higher education, however, the story is different. Women are responding to the engineering argument. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO estimates that women could comprise as many as 60 percent of engineering students in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf.
Among rich countries:
- Kuwait graduates women at 49 percent of engineering classes.
- Thirty-two percent of engineering students in Bahrain are women.
- United Arab Emirates enrollments increased from 2.9 percent in 2012 to 24.9 percent in 2015.
- In Saudi Arabia, graduation rates for women in engineering have risen from one percent in 2000 to 10 percent by 2011. And 80 percent of female students show interest in engineering.
Developing countries do well, too:
- Women are 40 percent of engineering classes in Jordan.
- Algeria’s engineering class is 36 percent female.
- Women in Gaza study computer science and engineering at the same or higher rates than men do.
Governments across the Arab region have made transitioning to knowledge-based economies a policy priority. One study found 17 of the 22 Arab countries have made this commitment, and the education pieces of this project have accelerated women’s entry into STEM fields, and engineering in particular:
- With national education systems in place, countries have pushed STEM-related reforms quickly and substantially throughout primary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems.
- Many girls attend single-sex schools, which might (or might not) be a factor promoting their achievement in math and science fields.
- University admissions are typically tied to performance on tests, which are gender-neutral. Girls who do well on tests move into areas of their demonstrated aptitude.
Engineering enjoys a higher social status in the Middle East than it does in the United States. Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and former Duke University faculty member, says, “The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the UAE, and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, siblings studying these subjects.”
Startup culture, and the technology industry in general, can be, surprisingly, less gendered in the Middle East. A recent meeting of Internet entrepreneurs in Amman, Jordan, was over one-third women, a rate that attendees confirmed as typical in the field.
Where it shows up
- Microsoft runs an annual app-building competition called the Imagine Cup. The 2013 competition attracted notice because two of the three all-women teams came from the Middle East: one from Oman, the other from Qatar. Their presence at the competition impressed observers more than the women themselves. “We really didn’t think about it until we came and everyone was surprised,” says Latifa Al-Naimi, 20, a member of the team from Qatar.
- The Committee of Arab Women Engineers has been recognizing accomplishments by women in the field in public ceremonies since 2011. Jordanian Princess Sumaya, also the President of the Royal Scientific Society in Jordan, has been a staunch supporter of the group, and she also chairs the Board of Trustees of the Princess Sumaya Institute of Technology.
- When Nerman Fawzi Sa’d, a mechanical engineer in Jordan, was looking for help with some projects, she posted a seven-word ad online: “Female engineers required to work from home.” Within a week, she received over 700 resumes. This response led her to form Handasiyat, a virtual engineering consultancy employing female Arab engineers. A crashing success, the company earned her recognition as one of the 100 most powerful Arab women in the world, according to ArabianBusiness.com.
What we might learn
The factors and forces behind Arab women’s increasing prominence in engineering education and technology fields in general cut in fascinating, confounding ways. The phenomenon has garnered enough attention to be serving as the focus of a two-year, NSF-funded study of female engineering students in four Arab countries.
The researchers themselves emphasize the counter-intuitive nature of their work. Predominantly Muslim countries, notoriously restrictive for women, are unexpected places to go for insights into how to unlock the potential of women in engineering in the United States.
And yet, the data are clear, for all the complexity underlying them. We should clearly keep working on how to bring the lessons from the Middle East back to the United States in a form applicable to our own challenges with the gender gap in engineering.