The UAE aims to be among the top 25 nations worldwide excelling in the field of women’s empowerment, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance recently told a meeting of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Key to achieving that goal is high quality educational access to the country’s girls and women. And given the UAE’s focus on transforming the country into an innovative knowledge economy, education that integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is of particular importance. That is why on the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the region’s first graduate-level engineering university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies, reiterates its commitment to empowering women in innovative STEM fields while celebrating the achievements of its female faculty, students and staff.
“I am proud of the education we deliver at Masdar Institute, which is enabling the development of the country’s leading female scientists and engineers and in turn, bringing the UAE closer to achieving its knowledge economy transformation, and I am proud of the many women who have joined Masdar Institute and grown with us, professionally and academically,” said Dr. Behjat Al Yousuf, Provost of Masdar Institute.
At Masdar Institute, women account for 51% of students, which rises to 68% among UAE nationals – a significant figure compared to the US engineering program average of 23.1%. The Institute also has a high percentage of women in its upper management, and 39% of its faculty and staff are female. These numbers are a testament to the focus the university places on female student and professional outreach and support.
THE VALUE OF FEMALE INTEGRATION FOR THE UAE
Integration of women in STEM is critical to the UAE’s national development goal of transforming from an oil economy to a knowledge economy focused on high-value sectors that are STEM heavy, including renewable and clean energy, transportation, technology, education, health, water, and space. By many estimates Emirati women account for over half of the country’s graduates.
“Women are a valuable asset to all countries, but particularly in the UAE, where we see how passionate they are about education and success. They want to invent things, to contribute, and to lead. That is why it is crucial for women to be involved in and contribute to the creation of the innovations that underlie the knowledge-based sectors of the UAE,” explained Dr. Lamya N. Fawwaz, Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs, Masdar Institute.
Additionally, Dr. Fawwaz said that the UAE’s strong female STEM graduate percentage could enhance the country’s competitiveness in the high-tech sectors in which it hopes to advance. Diversity in backgrounds and disciplines is known to be a source of creativity in problem-solving, while female representation in particular has been shown to improve outcomes; in 2012 Credit Suisse Research Institute examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011 and found that those with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower net debt to equity and better average growth.
“Having a STEM-based economy in the UAE that has a heavy female participation could produce very different products and services that make the UAE more competitive in traditionally male-dominated technology sectors. There is nowhere in the world right now where women dominate STEM, so our female-heavy STEM sectors would be unprecedented and I’m excited to see what we produce,” Dr. Fawwaz said.
STEM jobs are also among the highest-paying. The US Department of Commerce found that workers who hold STEM degrees enjoy higher earnings regardless of occupation, and women with STEM jobs in particular earned 33% more than women in non-STEM jobs. Thus, more women in STEM could bolster the UAE economy as it transitions away from fossil fuels and heavy reliance on public-sector employment, providing its people with high-value professional jobs that meet the high quality of life to which they have become accustomed.
HOW IS MASDAR INSTITUTE DOING IT?
Just two years after Masdar Institute opened its classrooms, then assistant professor Dr. Georgeta Vidican conducted a study of 2,520 female students in universities across the UAE to discover the barriers facing women in the UAE to science and engineering studies and professions.
The research had many insights, but particularly useful was its finding that having family support was a strong indicator of a successful STEM education and career for Emirati women, as well as mentorship or having a close relationship with an established Emirati female STEM professional.
With this information in mind, Masdar Institute embarked on an outreach program to educate the UAE public about the value of STEM professions, providing many local female faces in its advertising campaigns to reduce cultural perceptions that women are not suited to STEM. It also ensured that female students’ families were engaged in the enrollment process so they would provide support and encouragement. To help develop Masdar Institute’s female students into tomorrow’s STEM leaders, the Institute invites female alumni to mentor and guide the next group of female students, to inspire them and share their experiences. The Institute also rigorously recruits Emirati female faculty, to ensure that the many young Emirati women studying in its engineering programs can benefit from their successes and insights.
SUPPORTING THE ENTIRE STEM PIPELINE
And Masdar Institute is not just interested in educating women during their Master’s or PhD programs. Its approach to female empowerment looks at the entire pipeline, beginning with outreach to undergraduate students, through to employment of graduates in STEM fields.
To motivate and excite female undergraduate students to pursue STEM the Institute offers a number of outreach programs, providing student internships and immersive week-long research experiences to undergraduate students in the UAE. These programs routinely boast higher rates of female participation. This year, nearly 70% of the undergraduate interns at Masdar Institute are female.
And to ensure that the Institute’s female graduates are able to go on and find meaningful employment in the UAE’s STEM fields, the Institute set up a Career Services Office and provides professional internships to its students at attractive high-tech companies.
“The services and internships we provide our students and alumni help ensure they get relevant real-world experience to complement laboratory and classroom lessons that helps make them more desirable as hires, and also establishes the professional networks and connections that result in immediate degree-relevant placement upon graduation,” Dr. Fawwaz shared.
The result of this approach has been a steady increase in female student numbers, an equally steady increase in female student achievements, and a high level of alumni placement. An estimated 91% of Masdar Institute’s graduates are either employed or pursuing PhD programs in local and international universities
Masdar Institute has significantly increased the number of female STEM role models in the UAE through active support of its talented Emirati female faculty and cultivating a group of highly-skilled Emirati female engineering graduates.
For example, Dr. Hanifa Taher Al Blooshi, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, won the 2016 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Fellowship Award for her research in designing a new novel system for enzymatic biodiesel production. She also co-authored a book on her work in 2015.
“I am grateful for the strong support I have received from Masdar Institute to pursue my research, teach and engage in meaningful collaborations. Masdar Institute’s efforts to retain, support and cultivate high-achieving female scientists is an important step towards increasing the population of female STEM professionals in the UAE and across the entire region,” she commented.
Masdar Institute’s female Emirati alumni are also inspiring young women in the UAE through their professional and academic successes. Among Masdar Institute’s notable alumni is Class of 2013 graduate Meshayel Lehsooni, who is currently the Director of Future Energy and Security of Supply and Chief of Happiness and Positivity at the UAE Ministry of Energy.
“Originally, I was attracted to Masdar Institute because of its focus on sustainability, energy and climate change, but I was also excited by the opportunity that the Institute provided for young Emirati women to become more involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics related areas and to contribute to the strategic goals of the UAE,” Lehsooni explained.
Another trailblazing alumna is Class of 2014 MSc in Microsystems Engineering graduate Mejd Alsari Almheiri. A recipient of the Distinguished Student Scholarship from the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, she is currently pursuing her PhD at Cambridge University and jointly established the first UAE Synchrotron Users Association to help researchers in the UAE access the world’s selective advanced research facilities.
With success stories like these, Masdar Institute is serving as a role model for female empowerment in STEM fields for the UAE and wider region.
Emirati women have played and will continue to play a critical role in the UAE’s strategic goals, including its plan to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy, especially as their numbers in the STEM sectors increase.
Masdar Institute is proud of its talented female administrators, faculty, students and alumni, who are serving as the country’s role models and helping to encourage more Emirati women into the STEM careers that are critical to the development of competitive technology-based industries in the UAE.
Zarina Khan, Senior Editor and Erica Solomon, News and Features Writer
15 March 2017