Women in STEM: more role models being showcased, and UAE shows that women can lead innovation economy

Women in STEM: more role models being showcased, and UAE shows that women can lead innovation economy

by Nitin Dahad

We are living in times where equality and diversity are now top of the agenda in many discussions. In particular, the role of women in technology and innovation is one that has been hotly debated in public in recent weeks and months, especially with the high-profile Google employee memo, which saw the author of the memo being fired for suggesting women were not as capable as men.

There are at least a couple of factors that pose challenges for encouraging more equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths): one is the lack of visible public role models (there are a few but they are not always glorified in the way successful male role models are); and then there is the opportunity aspect, in terms of being able to have the same opportunities as men in STEM-related careers.

Increasingly, there are an increasing number of platforms for role models to be put on stage – such as the ‘I am Tomorrow’ festival which is being taken to several cities by social entrepreneur Kiran Maverick (and takes place in London in September), and the upcoming Women in STEM 2017 conference in San Francisco.

In a recent Huffington Post article, filmmaker Harleen Singh said, “Gender roles are predefined in a manner that women increasingly operate in a world where they must go to extreme extents to make their voices heard.” She poses the questions, “Do we have female substitutes for a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? An important question to ask is: As technology takes over every aspect of human lives, how do we create role models for a new generation of girls and young women?”

She says that women have not experienced the same career opportunities presented to men. “Women, especially in STEM, are often side-lined because they are erroneously believed to be incapable of solving hard problems. Many such incorrect assumptions abound, are routinely made and propagated even amongst the most progressive of corporate environments,” she adds in her article.

The perception of women’s capability is a challenge, as evidenced in a recent documentary aired by the BBC, “No more boys and girls: can our kids go gender free’.  In the program, Dr Javid Abelmoneim poses the most profound question: is the way we treat boys and girls in childhood the real reason we still haven’t achieved true equality between men and women in adult life?

And could stripping away the pink and blue – and other more subtle ways that boys and girls are shaped to be different – be the way to raise kids with attitudes that are the same regardless of their gender? The doctor conducts a social experiment in a class of seven year old boys and girls, removing all the differences in the way boys and girls are treated to see if, after a term of ‘gender neutral’ treatment, he can even out the gaps in their achievement across a range of important psychological measures – from self-confidence to emotional intelligence.

What’s most telling from this experiment supports Harleen Singh’s statement suggesting girls are often side-lined because they are erroneously believed to be incapable of solving hard problems: in a strength test experiment, the girls in the class underestimate what they would be able to achieve when asked to predict what their score might be, and when actually conducting the task, actually score much better than their male counterparts.

Women more prominent in UAE

Some countries however seem to have been setting the course to tackle the women in STEM and innovation challenge over a course of a number of years. The Abu-Dhabi based newspaper, The National’ reports how women are playing a prominent role in the UAE’s innovation-led economy.

It says, “in the United Kingdom, less than a fifth of STEM professionals are women and similar shortages exist across the world’s largest economies. As governments explore ways to address the gap, the UAE is steadily developing a generation of Emirati women who will help drive the country’s future innovation-led economy. We are proud to be part of this movement. At more than 50 percent, the representation of Emirati women in STEM programmes at UAE universities already exceeds international averages. In addition, the number of Emirati women joining the workforce as engineers and scientists has risen significantly in past years. Female nationals in the nuclear sector, for instance, have tripled between 2014 and 2015, according to a report by the UAE mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

It adds, “These developments did not materialize overnight, nor are they coincidental. In the past, stereotypes may have dissuaded Emirati women from pursuing careers in areas that were primarily male-dominated, including electrical and mechanical engineering, robotics, computing and information technology and nuclear science. However, the UAE’s consistent efforts to empower women over the years have helped to break these stereotypes. Substantial investment in STEM education and the creation of job opportunities in primary growth sectors have encouraged more women to pursue studies in STEM disciplines. In addition, close collaboration between government entities and prominent national organizations has helped to accelerate the development of qualified Emirati cadres.”

The National goes on to highlight how in 2015, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) and Mubadala formed a partnership to align education with career opportunities in industries that are at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s long-term economic diversification programme. The strategic partnership was formed to build infrastructure in curricula, laboratories, knowledge portals, experiential learning, teacher training and applied research, in order to develop talent and knowledge in STEM fields.

It adds, “Such initiatives are in line with Abu Dhabi’s wider economic vision, which emphasizes the creation of high-value employment opportunities for nationals, and maximizing the participation of women in the workforce. This is alongside the UAE’s vision to establish our nation as a sustainable, knowledge based economy, with innovation, research, science and technology forming its pillars. Given that women account for about half of the UAE population, there lies significant potential to harness their skills in delivering long-term benefits for the country. In fact, according to a study by the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, increasing the participation of female Emirati talent in STEM fields to the level of their male counterparts, could boost the UAE’s GDP by an estimated 12 per cent.”

The UAE example certainly demonstrates how it is possible to address the equality issue, in order to provide women with ample opportunity to be part of the innovation economy. But it has also shown that it takes a number of years for this change in attitudes and mindsets to be established. That’s not to say that there aren’t great examples of successful women in tech and innovation elsewhere already – as the many platforms like ‘I am Tomorrow’ and ‘Women in STEM’ conferences show.

And over the years, I have come across many successful women in tech too – like Sundari Mitra, founder of Netspeed Systems in Silicon Valley, USA and Samantha Payne, co-founder of Open Bionics in Bristol, UK. Both have stories to tell of how they have achieved their success, and these need to be told, like that of many others, so that they can be role models for many more girls and women to understand how they can also have successful careers in STEM.

The more role models there are, the more it’s possible to help go some way towards breaking the barriers for others to come into the world where technology innovation needs both men and women to drive the agenda.

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