Arab Women Defy STEM Stereotypes

This summer, I spent a week in the Persian Gulf state of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). People in the West might know that the Gulf states have a high percentage of non-citizen migrant workers, and they might have heard of the oppressive conditions under which many of these migrants labor. They might also think of Gulf-born women as leading lives of drudgery and patriarchal oppression.

Since my area of expertise within women and gender studies is gender and science/technology, I did not have so bleak an image of women in the region. I knew from way back that Kuwait and Turkey have relatively high percentages of women in many scientific and technical fields. I also knew that the only woman to ever receive the Fields Medal—the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics—was Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian. And Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, employs 46 women pilots and five women technical personnel; these numbers probably represent a higher percentage of women than any other major airline in the world.

Still, when I got to Abu Dhabi I was surprised by the visibility of Arab women in high-tech startups. I wound up speaking with a dozen professional women in person or via Skype. Aside from one Belarusian, all identified as Arab. They hailed from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Palestine and had studied or worked in many countries of the Mideast, Europe and North America. It turns out that the region is a magnet for young, dynamic Arab women making successful careers for themselves in a variety of high-tech and other scientific fields; “land of opportunity,” “a tech-person’s paradise,” and yes, even “mecca” were among the terms used to describe the UAE by the women I met.

All the women conveyed an impression of dynamism, professional competence and self-assurance. They are working in countries that are generally seen as patriarchal and conservative, and most of them are away from home and family for long periods of time. Their mobility and enthusiasm for their work are especially remarkable under these circumstances. Perhaps most surprising is how nonchalant the women are about their achievements and how reluctant they are to portray themselves as unusual or worthy of admiration. They report few experiences of gender discrimination during their student years and relatively few in the workplace, even though they are thriving in fields dominated by men.

My conversations energized me, and I returned to the U.S. eager to discuss my trip. To my chagrin, however, I got only one “like” and absolutely no comments on my Facebook post, colleagues quickly changed the subject, and I met with blank stares among my students. It’s possible that these reactions are explained by the fact that most people know nothing about the Gulf states and are reluctant to display their ignorance. But it’s also possible that something else was coming into play. Namely, many feminists will tut-tut about the sufferings of women in patriarchal societies, and the oppression of women under Islam is a common theme in many “women of the world”-type courses. U.S. feminists are often uncomfortable, however, when they are confronted with situations that challenge their generalizations about women in other parts of the world. And these computer scientists, mechanical and biomedical engineers, and other women working in high-tech careers in the Gulf certainly defy Western stereotypes.

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