Task Force Essay: STEM Education and the Muslim Gender Divide

June 19th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
Task Force Essay: STEM Education and the Muslim Gender Divide
February 2015

Nadia M. Alhasani, PhD


“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

It may come as a surprise that this opening statement was made by First Lady Michelle Obama (September 26, 2011) on the status of women in STEM1 in the U.S. It is a clear indication that the issue of STEM education, research and employment continues to be a major concern in many countries across the globe including those considered leaders in innovation2. It is also apparent to many governments and non-government organizations (NGOs) that jobs in STEM reduce the income gap in general and the gender pay divide in particular, and increase a nation’s economic growth3. These facts point to the need to reconsider the current trends in how STEM is perceived, practiced, and projected.

Muslim countries register the youngest population worldwide with up to 50 percent of its population in some cases4. They also report the lowest scores in international math and science tests5.  Furthermore, Muslims’ track record, in terms of inventions and innovations, is also very poor. It is of interest to note that since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Prize for chemistry and physics has been awarded to two Muslim scientists only, namely Mohammad Abdus Salam (1979) and Ahmed Zewail (1999)6. These numbers beg some fundamental intervention and change in current practices in regards to the development of more progressive STEM strategies for teaching, research and work attainment.

The United Arab Emirates presents a unique opportunity to study and analyze many of the complex issues facing the Muslim communities at large. It also provides for some solutions that might be adopted elsewhere to further the status and advancement of STEMs within the society at large7.

According to a report on STEM education, “women in the U.S. earned 57 percent of all bachelors’ degrees awarded, up from 54 percent in 1993. Simultaneously, the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded to women in mathematics and statistics declined by 4 percent and in computer science by 10 percent. Consequently, while women have comprised a growing share of the college-educated workforce, their share of the STEM workforce has not increased. Only 14 percent of engineers are women, as are just 27 percent of individuals working in computer science and math positions8.”

In comparison, women in the UAE earned 62 percent of all degrees awarded in 2011-2012, reaching to 71 percent in federal universities. In the STEM fields, women graduates represented 50.7 percent and 56.8 percent respectively. With the exception of engineering, women are graduating at higher rates than men in the STEM fields. As for the workforce, Emirati women constituted 43.8 percent of the workforce in 2011 up from 25.6 percent in 19909.

It is worth considering these numbers within the context of the job market. Given the young economy and dependency on oil, it became apparent to the UAE leaders that diversification in higher education is essential for better job opportunities. The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 was developed to become a comprehensive roadmap for all institutions, including academic, to build a knowledge-based workforce with a focus on STEM and export-oriented sectors.

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, had stated that “Islam affords women their rightful status, and encourages them to work in all sectors, as long as they are afforded appropriate respect.” To that end, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) embarked on a unique endeavor by establishing the Petroleum Institute (PI) in 2001 to train young Emirati men in engineering and prepare them to work in the oil and gas sector. Five years, later, women were admitted to its programs to attend separate classes in the same fields of engineering and applied sciences. To date, the PI has graduated over 1,000 engineers and scientists including more than 250 women. More impressive is the fact that 47 percent of all students pursuing bachelor degrees are women, of which more than 95 percent are Emirati.

The operating strategies of the PI’s Women in Science and Engineering Program10 (WiSE) stem from a fundamental shift in recruiting and retaining women in engineering and applied sciences as it acknowledges the fact that this generation of college students is quite different from their predecessors. What appears to be a lack of interest in basic sciences and mathematics is due in part to the degree to which students are exposed to science and technology. Today’s Generation Y is a different generation from their predecessors, Generation X, or even the Baby Boomers before them11.  While Baby Boomers are traditionalists working within clearly defined boundaries and are more willing to work in 9am-5pm jobs, Generation X enjoys freedom, incorporates technology and dislikes supervision. Meanwhile, Generation Y is motivated by flexible schedules and expects mentoring from their leaders. Finally Generation Z is the most connected and digitally experienced in communication and media technology. These characterizations are applicable across the world with varying degrees of exposure to science and technology.

Understanding the connection among the various generations to technology is crucial to ensure better recruitment results into the fields of STEM. Baby Boomers were fascinated with chemistry and physics labs given their limited exposure to technology outside school. They opened a world that is only available in the laboratories. However, Generations X, Y and Z have more exposure to technology with connection to the world outside the classroom. This access is also more available to both genders through cable TVs, home computers, and mobile phones.

Accordingly, a few initiatives have been implemented within the PI and local communities towards making STEM more of an attractive and attainable option to female high school students. These initiatives have evolved to become an integral part of the institute’s strategic plans. Its application has also migrated to include the men as well with similar positive results.

One fundamental initiative is to focus on the gender neutrality of STEM. In most cases, high school girls see the traditional nerd image of a scientist or masculine image of a site engineer. The integration of technology in STEM fields has revolutionized the way we approach STEM studies and their applications. Physical sciences or math and statistics are abstract notions that carry the same concepts globally. Their fundamentals are universal and not place-specific. They carry the same meaning regardless of their application. Thus H2O is a symbol for water whether in the east or west, and 1+1=2 regardless of the country of application. This universality coupled with that of technology is the key to teaching STEM and the advancement of its application.

A related initiative is to reveal the human aspect of STEM, especially engineering. Many women, especially Muslims, are eager to serve their society through the medical fields in spite of the long hours, work shifts and work in remote locations or difficult conditions. There continues to be a mystery, due in part to lack of exposure, surrounding engineering. Much is needed to change the image of STEM towards making it an attractive alternative to business, for example.

The third initiative is to challenge students with innovative applications of basic STEM principles towards extending their imagination beyond the standard projects. In an era of collaborations and team work, this is an initiative that tends to be discarded by faculty who are less receptive to change. However, programs seeking international accreditation are more receptive to this initiative and willing to venture outside the box12.

The fourth initiative is to institutionalize community engagement of college students in STEM events. Rather than the traditional service of university faculty supporting school teachers, first- and second-year STEM college students are leading fun and innovative activities engaging elementary and high school students towards raising awareness and igniting a passion for STEM, and in the process, contributing to the advertisement and advancement of STEM in the community13.

Finally, accolades through local and national STEM competitions are necessary to shed light on its advancement and high status within the society. A quick review of local news, both digital and in print, highlights the disadvantaged state of STEM fields in Muslim societies. A conscious balanced view between business and STEM should be considered in the media as they too have a social responsibility to advocate for STEM and highlight its crucial role in advancing the economy14.


The low representation of women in STEM fields is a global issue in many countries including Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and the U.S. However, there are countries with better records such as China where 40 percent of its engineers are women.  And while the number of women in engineering is declining in the U.S., it is improving in other countries. For example, the U.S. is behind thirteen Muslim countries in the percentage of women graduating with STEM degrees, including Bahrain, Brunei, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, and Turkey.15 Such success stories should be researched as case studies with the intent to consider knowledge transfer and sharing of experiences from one Muslim society to another.

Academic institutions are in a unique position to work with governments and NGOs on science festivals, after-school programs and summer camps by mobilizing senior and graduate students. Community engagement and outreach has become one of the required factors that accreditation teams expect to see in STEM programs. Tougher federal and international accreditation requirements can support such initiatives and ensure minimum international standards of excellence.

 A major contributing factor to the success of any STEM initiative is the reliance on teachers and professors to bring the excitement of science back to the classroom. Students are better inspired if there are those who can inspire them. Professors holding PhDs in STEM are not necessarily taught how to teach STEM. Innovative approaches to teaching, ensuring appropriate credentials and pedagogical competencies are essential to the advancement of modern STEM education.

Lastly, women must be included in all STEM initiatives to increase the STEM workforce. Muslim countries cannot afford to exclude half of the society if they want to catch up with the technologically advanced countries.

The vast expanse of Muslim countries, their diverse population, and varying resources must be at the forefront of any STEM discussions and strategy development. While the unifying factor is their religion, the fact is that local traditions and cultural norms are major contributing factors affecting how STEM is perceived. Additionally, exposure to and familiarity with technology is at varying degrees across the Muslim world.

In his opening remarks at the 10th World Islamic Economic Forum in Dubai (October 28, 2014), the Malaysian Prime Minister His Excellency Najib Razak stressed the importance of giving education top priority in the Muslim world. He alluded to the historical significance of education in the Muslim world through its education initiatives and the world’s first universities. “However, it has fallen back immensely as two out of three Muslims cannot read and write today,” he said. These statements are an unfortunate reflection of today’s state of affairs in a majority of the Muslim world, especially for women and young girls. The declining figures in literacy, in turn, affect how society perceives the importance of science and technology, and the role it plays in an individual’s development and society’s advancement.

When the announcement was made awarding seventeen-year old high school student Malala Yousafzai the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, she was in a chemistry laboratory working on an experiment. She finished her school day prior to making herself available to the press. Perhaps we can hope for the day when many “Malalas” shall come forward in the Muslim world to consider their time in the laboratories an important part of who they are.



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