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Why are there no GCC women in STEM fields?

Women-in-business

Tahseen Consulting research reveals female underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

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February 9, 2014 12:31 by



In recognition of the potentially powerful addition that women can play in regional economies, GCC governments have set ambitious goals to expand the number of women enrolled in TVET programmes and working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. However, the research finds that women are still much less likely to study STEM fields and, when they enter employment, they tend to be concentrated in fields that are inconsistent with national economic ambitions for transitioning to knowledge-based economies.

While the demand for workers in STEM fields has surged, traditionally, much of this was filled by foreign labour. According to new research by professional management consultant company, Tahseen Consulting, GCC governments are gradually restructuring technical and vocational education and training (TVET) systems and introducing labour market reforms to restructure national employment towards the private sector and in-demand STEM fields.

 

Country

Labour market participation of male nationals (%)

Labour market participation

of female nationals (%)

Bahrain

68%

33%

Kuwait

61%

30%

Oman

45%

20%

Qatar

65%

35%

Saudi Arabia

63%

16%

The UAE

58%

20%

OECD average

69%

51%

 

Female labour market participation rates in the GCC region significantly lag the OECD average and, in some cases, are among the lowest in the world. A reason behind this phenomenon is that women are often directed away from pursuing STEM careers by family members, despite their interest or aptitude, due to ingrained cultural ideas about appropriate educational pathways and career tracks for them. The lack of female faculty available to teach TVET programmes in the GCC region also implicitly sends the message that STEM fields are less appropriate for them.

Female public university enrolment patterns reveal a strong concentration of females in arts, social sciences, education and business, rather than STEM fields concerning critical and knowledge-based economic development. Women interested in STEM fields are often exposed to negative social pressure to avoid more diverse professions in favour of culturally acceptable roles in the public sector and state-owned companies. The high concentration of females in the public sector serves to reinforce social views that it is the only appropriate employer for females. The difficulties women experience while transitioning to the labour market and between jobs also make them more likely to retain jobs in the public sector or become discouraged and voluntarily remove themselves from the labour market.

Women also encounter difficulties when finding employment in more diverse STEM fields due to the features of the structural labour market. In most of the region, extractive industries remain the major economic sector. However, extractive industries and many emerging fields that have fuelled recent GCC growth tend to be heavily male-dominated fields that attract few women. High percentages of foreign males in the private sector encourage women to seek more culturally and socially acceptable employment in fields with more women or those in gender-segregated environments.

Personal status laws and vague language in national labour laws, although recently reformed in many parts of the region, continue to restrict some women from entering STEM fields. While all GCC nations have undertaken nationalisation policies to increase the number of national workers in the labour force and crucial private sector professions, nationalisation initiatives have historically targeted male-dominated industries, such as oil and gas, which are less attractive to women.

 

Country

Percentage of female nationals employed in the public sector

Percentage of female nationals employed in the private sector

Bahrain

50%

50%

Kuwait

94%

6%

Oman

65%

35%

Qatar

88%

12%

Saudi Arabia

63%

37%

The UAE

89%

11%

 

Across the GCC region, some STEM options are not open to women, including many advanced engineering sub-disciplines critical to regional development. Addressing the supply of TVET programmes means not only increasing the number of options available to women, but also ensuring that institutions are female-friendly and offer high-quality courses.

Increasing female employment rates in technical fields will require increasing employers’ demand for female labour in a way that overcomes existing preferences for public sector employment. Several GCC policy experiments with training and wage subsidy programmes have proven effective in incentivising companies to hire more women.



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