Traditional bias keeps girls from pursuing science and technology in Gulf
DUBAI: Only 2 percent of girls in the UAE opt to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), according to a leading STEM advocate. Sumaira Patel, special program manager at Techbelles, which provides free STEM education to girls in the UAE, said that the lack of positive gender-specific role models and a tendency to consider certain professions as more ‘suitable’ for females are among the main reasons why there are so few female STEM students.
Patel said Techbelles aims to have at least 1,000 students by the end of 2018.
“STEM education is critical to the sustainable growth of countries,” Patel said. “Employers are finding it difficult to fill skilled entry level jobs because of a lack of critical skills. Research shows that children begin to develop an interest in the STEM field at around eight years old. (We want to equip) today’s kids to excel in the jobs of tomorrow.”
Bias and stereotype
Dr. Zeenath Reza Khan, another leading STEM advocate and academic, said that the predominant traditional bias and stereotype is that STEM subjects and careers are for men, so girls are often dissuaded from exploring science and technology.
“The attitude of parents, family, friends, and teachers plays a significant role in deterring female students from pursuing STEM education and careers. No one necessarily consciously or actively discriminates against girls in these subjects. But the bias exists and it is quite glaring, if you know where to look,” said Khan, who teaches at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences of the University of Wollongong in Dubai.
“We need more awareness programs across schools and parents to bring forward the benefits of pursuing STEM education,” Khan continued. “We have lost a mass of female students because they have already been subjected to this bias by the time they’re eight years old. We need to raise awareness among parents of the possibilities STEM offers their girls for their futures.”
According to Patel, a lack of data makes it difficult to pinpoint which GCC country is most successful in terms of STEM education.
“However,” she added, “our experience suggests the UAE is at the forefront of technological change. This has had a trickle-down effect when it comes to STEM education. There is, of course, significant room for improvement in this regard, but it is clear that the STEM revolution is here.”
She went on to say, though, that schools and teachers in the UAE are not equipped with the technology or resources required to drive STEM at an acceptable level.
“Teachers lack STEM skills and will need extensive training to be able to do justice to STEM studies,” she said. “The key is to make STEM inclusive and not treat it as an extra-curricular activity. The curriculum needs to be revised and re-written with a focus on STEM. Schools, corporations, public and private institutes all need to come together to make STEM successful in schools.”
She cited a survey conducted by Khalifa University in the UAE, which showed that 83 percent of teachers said the curriculum does not meet the needs of the students; 67 percent said the school did not provide them with adequate teaching material; while 64 percent said they had never attended any form of professional development to improve STEM pedagogies.