ABU DHABI // Experts say more Emirati women are needed in the science, technology and engineering sectors to reduce the country's reliance on foreign skills.
Dr Georgeta Vidican, the assistant professor of the engineering systems management programme at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, explained that investing in local talent is part of the Emirates' strategy to "develop local production capabilities and reduce foreign market exposure."
Dr Vidican spoke at a lecture this week hosted by the Gender and Public Policy Programme at the Dubai School of Government.
"Due to the nature of globalisation, which results in interconnected economies, the UAE has recently started to think about diversifying its economies outside the oil and gas industries and into more knowledge-based sectors," she said.
However, realising that goal will be a challenge. Just seven per cent of employees in the fields of science, technology and innovation in the UAE are Emiratis. While the majority of graduates are female, only a quarter of them will join the workforce. In 2007, only 19 per cent of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction were females.
In an effort to understand these trends, Masdar conducted a study of 2,520 female students in universities across the UAE - almost half of them in the fields in question.
The research found that most women who do not intend to work after graduation - 78 per cent of those surveyed - have plans to pursue higher education. Many perceive engineering as a labour-intensive career, with almost 20 per cent associating it with fieldwork, construction, sun and heat.
Nearly a quarter of Emirati respondents said they were interested in a career in science, technology or engineering but did not pursue one because of a lack of study options near their homes. The research also found that students from a less privileged socio-economic background were more likely to study for and enter the science fields than their well-off counterparts.
"This could be because wealthier students feel they can rely on their family connections to find positions, regardless of their major, while poorer students feel they need a strong scientific degree to secure job positions," said Dr Vidican.
Noor Ghazal Aswad, a graduate student at the Masdar Institute of Technology, believes young females could do with more mentors to guide them.
"These are very influential for girls, especially from a very young age," she said. "Initiatives where students can truly interact with role models can make this field come down to earth for so many students."
She added that universities should offer more technology and engineering programmes.
According to Dr Vidican, employers must also do more to draw female Emiratis on to their staff and keep them there, employing better work-life balance strategies such as extending maternity leaves and offering flex-time shifts.
"Our research seems to indicate a reluctance for private sector companies to employ women, and the reasons for this seem to be quite diverse," she said.