OpinionThe future is bright for gender equity in STEM in the MENA...

The future is bright for gender equity in STEM in the MENA region

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The historical account of women’s role in science reveals a paradox, with monumental achievements overshadowed by systemic under recognition. Despite significant barriers, including limited access to education and professional opportunities, women have persevered, contributing groundbreaking work that has laid the foundation for future scientific advancements. Their unwavering determination and resilience have gradually chipped away at the barriers erected by a historically male-dominated field, ensuring that the legacy of women’s contributions to science is both profound and lasting.

Today, the landscape for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is steadily transforming with greater inclusivity and recognition of women in science. Initiatives encouraging more female participation have gained momentum, propelled by tangible policies and a growing awareness of the importance of diversity in scientific research and development. However, this journey is not without its share of challenges. Women in STEM continue to navigate a complex web of societal and institutional barriers that hinder not just equality but also equity. Despite these obstacles, the current efforts across industries underscore a collective commitment to not only honour the legacy of women scientists but also to build an inclusive future where women’s contributions are celebrated and valued equally.

Lack of role models and social stigma hinder the participation of women in STEM fields.

The issue of women’s underrepresentation in leadership within STEM fields extends beyond mere statistics; the dearth of female role models has a ripple effect on the ambitions and career paths of aspiring women scientists. The scarcity of representation and mentors capable of guiding them through the nuances of career advancements dampens the enthusiasm and participation among young women, exacerbating the existing gender gap in science.

Moreover, entrenched cultural norms in the MENA region can present an added hurdle for women pursuing careers in STEM. Valuing their familial roles and, in some cases, social pressure to prioritize family over professional ambitions can complicate their decision-making process, dissuading them from considering these fields. This perpetuates a cycle of underrepresentation and creates more barriers to entry. Addressing these obstacles requires a concerted effort to embrace new attitudes led by institutional policies to cultivate a welcoming environment for women in STEM. This not only aligns with national ambitions but translates into tangible results. 

For women, the decision to take a career hiatus, whether for family responsibilities, further education, or entrepreneurial pursuits, also introduces significant hurdles to re-enter the workforce. The rapid evolution of technology and scientific knowledge means constant upskilling, amid potential biases and outdated societal expectations. The struggle to maintain a balance between professional ambitions and family obligations is pronounced, requiring not just personal resilience but also systemic support. Flexible working arrangements, supportive re-entry programs, and a culture that values diversity and work-life balance are crucial to mitigate these challenges, underscoring the importance of a holistic approach to support women in their pursuit of careers in science and technology.

Meaningful initiatives pushed by both the private and public sectors can institutionalize gender equity in the region.

The growing acknowledgment of the critical role of inclusivity in science has energized the STEM landscape for women. With the rise of female leaders across all sectors in the region, there are now many more role models for younger women who aspire to contribute through STEM. Mentorship programs foster these relationships within a formal and productive setting. For example, Pfizer’s Leadership Aspiring Future Talents program offers mentoring, coaching, internal networking, and best practices knowledge to hone participants leadership abilities. The program is a platform for women to engage with role models and empowers them to become role models themselves. These initiatives have yielded positive outcomes, evident in the rising number of women graduating with STEM degrees and increased participation across levels within STEM.

Similarly, there is also growing research and collaborations specifically from the region to champion inclusivity in the STEM sector. For instance, Pfizer partnered with the Arab International Women’s Forum to publish the DEI by Design report that provides recommendations on how to increase female participation in the MENA’s health sector. This collaboration highlights the significance of creating inclusive environments that recognize and celebrate the achievements of women in science. This is especially critical for women re-entering the workforce, where there is an emphasis on mentorship, coaching, and visibility through talent review discussions. Such measures ensure that women are supported, recognized, and provided with the opportunities to thrive both as professionals and as integral contributors to scientific advancement. Despite the challenges that remain, the path forward is illuminated with opportunities for growth and change. The collective effort to address underrepresentation, cultural stigmas, and the balance between professional and family life marks a pivotal step towards a more inclusive and equitable scientific community in the MENA region. Embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion in science not only enriches the field but also paves the way for scientific breakthroughs that benefit patients and humanity as a whole.

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