Scintillating Supersonic Scientists

January 13th, 2014 | by MuslimScience
Scintillating Supersonic Scientists

By the Editors of

Human brains are hardwired to see patterns in things. This makes life easy for man as it allows him (or her) to conserve on processing power. Often these patterns manifest themselves in the form of stereotypes. Scientists are referred to as ‘nerds’, academics as ‘absent-minded’, and policy-makers as ‘wonks’. Our society and culture is full of stereotypes. A number of these stereotypes affect women in particular. Women are often portrayed or reflected as doing certain kinds of things and not others. For instance, they’re hardly portrayed as scientists. It is common to show them as dental hygienist but never as dentists. Many of these stereotypes are formed and reinforced at our homes. But our media plays a very critical role in forming and substantiating these stereotypes.

This is, however, beginning to change. With the ever increasing contemporary trend of female scientists beginning to dominate the movie industry, it doesn’t seem long before the ‘reel’ world of Hollywood begins to seep into the ‘real’ World.

The ‘reel’ v/s ‘real’ world of science

Very recently, Hollywood has begun to embark on a journey of promoting women characters who are pursuing STEM careers. Recently, bombshell Natalie Portman appeared as an astrophysicist in the movie, Thor: The Dark World. “It’s really cool that Marvel — the comic company behind the Thor series — is working on what they call STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. Women are underrepresented in those fields so they are trying to encourage girls to study them more, because obviously there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be,” Portman told CNN [1].

Previously, several famous female characters have appeared in flicks embodying science oriented roles including [2]:

•Dr. Sarah Harding, a behavioral paleontologist in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Dr. Dana Scully in the X-Files

Dr. Dana Scully in the X-Files

•Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist in Prometheus (2012)

•Gwen Stacey, science-loving high powered executive in The Amazing Spiderman (2012)

•Dr. Stephanie Snyder, a doctor in The Bourne Legacy (2012)

•Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), forensic pathologist in The X-Files (TV & movie)

•Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), biochemist who is transformed by plant toxins into “Poison Ivy”, arch-nemesis of Batman in Batman and Robin (1997)

•Dr. Emma Russell (Elizabeth Shue), physicist who developed a formula for cold fusion in The Saint (1997)

Hollywood, however, is a completely make believe world, where the impossible is made to become the possible. Therefore, it may be relatively easier to believe that supersonic female scientists exist in the glamour world of films, with all their oomph. But does this make belief world has any correspondence with the real world too – particularly in the Islamic World?

If this special ‘Women in Science’ issue of Muslim-Science.Com has to have any credence, we believe so (see our Cover Story of January 2013 Issue “The Top Twenty Most Influential Women in Science in the Islamic World”) .

A very recent example of this were the L’Oreal-UNESCOPan Arab Awards that were handed out to the top 8 female Arab scientists for recognition for their work in the field of science. Female scientists with a range of expertise ranging from agriculture to mobile technology were honoured at an awards ceremony in Cairo. These brought forth several exceptional Arab women, who were multitasking science with home. While Hollywood women scientists jump across buildings and demonstrate super human intellectual capabilities, the science parallels in the real world distinguish themselves through their innate cognitive skills and sharp sense of science.

Thanks to Hollywood movies, such as the ones mentioned above, the image of a female scientist has undergone a transformation from a dull and haggard hunch-backed female, to a cool and hip, all in one entity, worthy of being calleda ‘superwoman’.

scintillating supersonic scientist1Numbers: The disappearing women

Science historian, Naomi Oreskes asserts, “The question is not why there haven’t been more women in science; the question is rather why we have not heard more about them.” Although women constitute a huge percentage of students who are pursuing science based subjects, yet when it comes to finding careers in the field, the number rapidly declines.

In Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two thirds of university science students are women, but their numbers are not replicated in the research workforce, of which women comprise only 12%. Similarly in Morocco, 70% of students enrolled in scientific universities are women, according to UNESCO; but few achieve leadership positions in the research field. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Libya, they make up 19% and 22%, respectively, still far below the world average of 30%.

Just 1% of Saudi Arabia’s researchers were women in 2011, according to the International Labour Organization. This low number is particularly surprising, given that 65% of the nation’s bachelor’s science degrees go to women. Similar patterns are evident in the rest of the Arab Middle East. However, there are some countries where the trend of Muslim women pursuing science appears favourable. One such country is Malaysia. Former Deputy Minister of S&T, Malaysia, Datin Khatijah Yusof, divulges her experience of taking up science, “I received very strong support.I was the only one of five children in my family who took up science.In fact, my dad gave me a microscope during primary school. In Malaysia, we are not discouraged to do science.In fact in 2006, there were 5,929 women researchers in science, rather than 1233 who were non-science.”

Women are clearly interested in science. But many cannot continue their careers because of limiting social attitudes in traditional Arab societies. Ameena Gurib-Fakim is of the opinion that, “Bias will always be there and is a reality that we have to get used to…If one has a good resume and high quality publications, biases and gender are irrelevant.”

scintillating supersonic scientists2The causes and the solutions

As plans to promote a shift to technology-based economies spreads across Arab and Islamic countries, the need for the presence of women within the workforce in science and technology, cannot be ignored. While technology and innovation are defining the new world order, it is pertinent, that women, forming more than half the population, begin to play a more active role in the dynamics.

Many a times, there is also a view that the science profession is not for the ‘fragile’ female sector. This sexist theory is a major reason for discouraging female scientists and researchers. Datin Khatijah Yusoff agrees with this phenomenon and outlines possible reasons for this: “This is because of the period, that the woman will need for maternity and family.Sometimes safety is also of concern. But then, when we look at our careers, there is always that glass ceiling that is very difficult to break.Men tend to support each other and whilst they can go and continue discussions at the “mamak stall” in Malaysia (as Muslims don’t go to the pub), women have to get home to look after the kids and also prepare dinner.”

The change in attitudes has to begin at home. Families and support systems should adopt encouraging attitudes towards their women who wish to adopt science based qualifications and careers. Organizations should attempt to gradually decrease prejudice attitudes, during hiring processes.

The media also needs to begin highlighting Muslim women scientists and their achievements, according to Ameena Gurib-Fakim, “The Media will put anyone in the spotlight if there is something to report on. Media highlights women Nobel Laureates and other achievers, but the reason why media focus is little, is because there are few women out there!” Datin Khatijah Yusof, former Deputy Minister of S&T, Malaysia also believes the same and feels that there needs to be more “publicity and engagement with the media,” in order for women scientists to be more recognized and valued.

Moreover, creating role models can encourage girls to pursue science careers and break down the common perception, that men are better suited for the job. “There are prominent female scientists in some countries and, unfortunately, their work is not highlighted enough. This is the role of Academies of the Muslim world to highlight their contributions. We have to make that effort ourselves, as no one will do it for us. We have to learn to appreciate our own people and this is where the Muslim world is weak,” says Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.

Ra’na Dajani, a biologist in Jordan, and a staunch advocate and champion of women’s participation in the scientific workforce thinks differently. Ra’na believes that there is nothing inherently against women’s work in Quran – the Islamic Scripture – and most of what we see are manifestations of either cultural norms or the projection of Western ideals of women on the Islamic World.

Things are changing over time, though the pace of change is quite slow.

Ultimately, Where there’s a will, there’s a way; more determination and encouragement from the society may help bridge the gender divide. Only time will tell.


1.McKenzie,Sheena‘Natalie Portman: Science’s unlikely heroine?’ (2013)

2.Manning, Kelsey ‘7 Women In Movies That Make Us Want To Be Scientists’ (2012)

3.UNESCO ‘Headcounts and Headaches: Measuring women in science’ A World of Science Vol. 5 n.2 (2007)

4.Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre for Islamic Countries Education and Scientific Development in the OIC Member Countries 2012/2013



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