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Global Perspectives on DEI: Women in STEM in Higher Education

By Mishal Syed and Dr. Anita Kreide

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become the focus of numerous organizations and is a newly formed committee for the California Association of Science Educators (CASE). In the US, efforts to improve diversity have largely focused on the inclusion of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), as American women are notoriously underrepresented in collegiate physical science fields. Western educators and policymakers have a tendency to assume the gender gap is universal—that women in all areas, across all populations, lack the ability or desire to pursue science. 

Surprisingly, research shows that women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region earn science and engineering degrees at the same or higher rates than their male peers; this has important implications for Western interpretations of gender disparity. 

Context: Western Ethnocentrism and  American Exceptionalism
Western ethnocentrism (the evaluation of other countries and cultures based on Western standards and assumptions) results in the commonly held belief that the America’s education system is the default, or even best case scenario, and that women elsewhere—particularly in predominantly Muslim regions—are worse off academically.

The assumption of American education structures as the default or special has been broadly defined by Pew Research Center as “American exceptionalism,” or the way that “Americans view themselves, their country, and the world in ways that reflect potentially unbridgeable, persistent gaps in opinions on important issues” (Rosentiel, 2006). Another term for this phenomenon is “Americentrism”. 

This article will explore research regarding women in STEM from the Western lens, and then introduce data from the MENA region as a means of expanding discourse surrounding diversity.

Western Research on Gender Inequality
In the United States, women are substantially underrepresented in collegiate physical science fields. According to the Pew Research Center, women earned, “...between 36 and 40 percent of degrees awarded in the physical sciences across all degree levels in the 2017-2018 academic year.” Women earn a similar proportion of math degrees (42 and 36 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively). Though American universities have dedicated substantial resources to improving women’s participation in STEM, women remain underrepresented (Fry, 2021). 

Western educators and researchers, as well as the general population, have posited various interpretations and explanations for gender disparity in STEM. Researchers cite stereotype, threat, discrimination, a lack of exposure to science, and negative self-perception as the primary reasons for these inequalities. Smeding (2012) states that, “...gender-STEM stereotypes have the potential to undermine girls’ and women’s self-perceptions of ability, performance, and interest in pursuing a career in [STEM] disciplines,” while Blackburn (2017) mentions that a significant barrier to women’s participation in STEM programs is the scientific field’s, “...occupational segregation and affiliated [stereotyping].” Blackburn emphasizes the way that a “chilly climate” in the workplace or classroom, which includes both overt and subtle forms of gender discrimination, can result in a “stifling” environment that discourages women from pursuing science (Blackburn, 2017, p. 243). 

Women who do succeed in STEM fields in the West typically have access to high institutional support. Their ability to persist in STEM fields has, “...been linked to…internal motivation…career adaptability…support from advisors…[and] adequate pre-college education” (Blackburn, 2017, p. 242). Other factors that support women’s inclusion are the availability of relevant student organizations, accessible undergraduate research programs, and institutions with a “robust community of STEM students” (Blackburn, 2017, p. 242).

It should be noted that American women are not necessarily underrepresented in STEM overall; they currently earn over half of life science (biological sciences and chemistry) degrees, and nearly 60% of bachelor’s degrees overall (Kahn & Ginther, 2017). Female underrepresentation is specific to physical science and engineering. This suggests that women are more likely to persist in STEM subfields that are directly linked to healthcare professions and have a clearly defined “helping society” component.

Responses to Inequality in Western Discourse
There is extensive literature discussing gender disparity in STEM, written by researchers. However, there are far fewer studies that investigate the responses of people outside of social science academia. One such study, conducted by Racusin et al. (2015), studied people’s anonymous responses to “prominent journalistic articles discussing social, scientific, [and] experimental evidence of bias in STEM.” Respondents were grouped into three categories—those who agreed that discrimination exists, those who were unsure but had constructive comments, and those who disagreed. Among the respondents who agreed with evidence of bias, people cited negative personal experiences and incidences of workplace harassment, as well as other historical evidence of male-perpetrated bias. Respondents who were uncertain about the issue stated they assumed gender bias in STEM was mostly a historical phenomenon but reconsidered their belief due to the articles they read. Respondents who disagreed often made disparaging remarks about women’s alleged lack of mathematical ability, insisted the articles presented were simply incorrect, or complained about “affirmative action”; as hypothesized, men were more likely to respond in negative, hostile, and unconstructive ways than women (Racusin et al., 2015).

Outside of academia, the public’s perceptions of women in STEM appear to vary widely. While some people accept evidence of bias and call for social change, others insist upon women’s inherent lack of STEM ability and display inarticulate, often misinformed hostility towards initiatives aimed at increasing women’s participation in the physical sciences. The debate over gender disparity has grown increasingly circular and futile in recent years, and has yielded little new information.

Unfortunately, Western researchers usually limit themselves to analyses of STEM students in America and Europe. This results in a myopic, Americentric view of the matter that excludes most of the world’s population. The debate over women’s participation in science and engineering will remain stilted and unproductive if the international component is ignored. Surprisingly, women in several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as Indian women, earn STEM degrees at substantially higher rates than Western women do, and are often more successful at engineering than their male peers. This has important implications for Western interpretations of gender disparity. 

Female STEM Representation in Muslim Countries
In Muslim-majority countries with emerging or developed economies, women earn degrees in science and engineering at nearly the same rate as men, and in some areas make up the majority of STEM graduates. According to a study conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the STEM gender gap is, “...smaller in…Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman than in the US,” and in some cases, a “reverse gender gap” exists, where women earn more than 50 percent of science degrees (Weingarten, n.d.). In Jordan, women make up, “...64 percent of students in the natural sciences, medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy…,” and women make up, “...60 percent of engineering students,” in Gulf Arab countries overall (Study International, 2019). In Iran, the difference is even more pronounced: According to author Saadia Zahidi, around, “...70 percent of Iranian university students in [STEM] are women” (“Middle Eastern,” 2018). In terms of women’s test scores and self-perception, the OECD reports that “Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries where women test better and feel more comfortable in mathematics than men” (Study International, 2019).

In many ways, Muslim women’s achievement and persistence in STEM fields is surprising, as the social and legal climates of Gulf Arab states other Muslim-majority nations remain intensely misogynistic both socially and systemically. In Iran, for instance, women, “...still possess far fewer rights [than men] and have been arrested…for any number of [arbitrary] violations” (Guttman, 2015). National Geographic reports that many Middle Eastern and North African countries are ranked, “...near the bottom of the [Georgetown Institute’s] 2019 Women, Peace, and Security Index”(Parks, 2021). 

Why, then, do women pursue science and engineering despite these barriers? It appears they are motivated to seek out STEM-based jobs with high potential for social mobility and financial independence. Girls in these countries frequently value and invest in science and math education more than their Western counterparts, as they know STEM has the potential to bring them greater independence: Educators report that, “...young girls in Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE have shown a natural strength and confidence in mathematics that exceeds [that of] their male classmates,” (“Middle Eastern,” 2018). Boys depend less on their educational attainment, and display lower investment in STEM education—and education in general.

Muslim women’s STEM proficiency is not limited to richer countries. In Herat, Afghanistan, where girls’ education is constantly under attack and girls’ their schools repeatedly shut down, the Girls’ Robotics Team has received international acclaim for their achievements. During the pandemic, the girls designed low-cost ventilators to address Afghanistan’s deficit (there were only 800 ventilators in the country). The team has been vocal about the importance of girls’ education, particularly in engineering (Karimi, 2020).

While many Muslim women choose to pursue STEM, in some countries, women’s science participation is driven primarily by high test scores. In Tunisia, for example, students are “...funneled into particular career tracks,” based on their scores on a standardized national exam; the highest scorers attend medical schools and engineering schools, and most top scorers are women (Weingarten, n.d.). Given the diversity in social and academic factors between MENA countries, it is difficult to reach an exact conclusion about why Muslim women’s STEM participation exceeds that of women in the West. However, one thing is clear; the dominant Western perception that women on average are inherently worse at math, or that they don’t care about science, is false. Internationally, girls tend to place immense value on science education and are motivated to pursue it. Western educators and policymakers, as well as the general public, have spent time and resources debating gender disparity in STEM with incomplete data that involves only American and European women; studying the subject with an international lens has important implications for Western policy. 

Limitations and Implications
In Muslim-majority countries, women’s STEM achievement in higher education is remarkable. However, many of these women are still limited in their ability to participate in the workforce, or are denied the right to work after graduation. According to National Geographic, though women earn more than half of all physical science degrees in Gulf Arab countries, women in this region, “...account for only 40 percent of the STEM workforce” (Parks, 2021). Women in the MENA region (with the exception of Iran) have some of the world’s lowest workforce participation rates; they lack “...equal career opportunities…,” despite being amply qualified (Parks, 2021). 

This pattern holds true in other developing countries, such as India, where women, “...make up…43 percent of total graduates in STEM—but just 14 percent of scientists and engineers in research development institutions and universities” (Shikha, 2021). In India, the disparity between women’s educational attainment and employment is particularly striking in the medical sector, where women earn medical degrees at higher rates than men but very rarely actually practice medicine, resulting in a massive doctor shortage, a lack of accessible healthcare for women, and high maternal and infant mortality rates. (Women make up about 17 percent of practicing doctors—and only 6 percent in rural areas—but earn 51 percent of medical degrees, according to the Times of India). 

Western countries tend to have the opposite pattern, where women have high rates of workforce participation and relatively high retainment, yet avoid pursuing physical science disciplines. Some researchers have suggested that a, “...stable government with strong social support programs provides a cushion which allows women to pursue less secure jobs,” and have also noted that women with strong mathematical ability tend to also have high verbal ability relative to men, giving academically talented women a wider range of options when they have the social support to pursue lower-paying careers (“Middle Eastern,” 2018).

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why many MENA countries have higher female STEM participation rates than America does, or why women’s workforce patterns are so drastically different between these areas. However, there are some clear takeaways from this:

  1. First, women are not inherently inclined to avoid STEM (their desire to pursue science depends on a variety of factors). Under favorable circumstances, women are equally or more capable of succeeding in STEM fields than men. 
  2. Second, advanced science expertise is a valuable long-term asset—encouraging women to get degrees in these fields is not enough; workforce retainment is necessary to ensure that women with these skills can use them.

By considering women’s involvement in STEM through a global lens rather than focusing exclusively on the West, American educators and policymakers can find more informed and effective pathways to improving DEI. 

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