ABU DHABI // Emirati girls are being deterred from careers in science, technology and engineering because of stereotypes.
There's also a lack of information for their parents about the subjects, says Noor Ghazal Aswad, a graduate of the Masdar Institute of Sciences and Technology.
Ms Ghazal, 25, who graduated last year, surveyed about 2,600 Emirati students at federal and private universities and 18 academics, Emirati professionals and research assistants, to discover the problems facing universities in recruiting young Emirati women.
The results are contained in a paper entitled Barriers to Pursuing Careers in Science, Technology, and Engineering for Women in the United Arab Emirates.
Many who had considered entering the so-called STE fields changed their minds either because courses were not available at their local universities or the jobs would involve travelling far from home.
Ms Ghazal's questionnaires revealed the prevalence of job stereotypes: many girls imagine being an engineer requires working in the desert or in the construction industry.
Socio-economic factors, she said, were a driving force in which subjects were chosen.
"Those from middle or low-income families were more likely to enter STE subjects because, especially for engineers, it's seen as very prestigious, a way of gaining status and a high salary," said Ms Ghazal, who now works in policy development at the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Those in higher income brackets tended to choose subjects such as finance, business studies or more arts-based subjects.
"Many of those going into STE believed that they were helping the UAE, realising Sheikh Zayed's vision," she added. "This is one way of engaging the women and encouraging them to get involved."
Prof Samy Mahmoud, chancellor of University of Sharjah, said such social ideals were reflected in the areas its Emirati girls chose, namely environment, clean energy, medicine and health care.
Ms Ghazal found the girls relied heavily on the advice of their extended families to make decisions, but, to get family support, there has to be better education about workplaces. Families need to be reassured that a work environment would be culturally sensitive and safe.
"The families need to be engaged more by the schools and universities, more than just for the negative things like disciplinary issues," she said.
"They need to have these things explained to them as it makes a big difference."
Just 10 per cent of Emirati girls enter the private sector after graduation because many parents are afraid the environment will not be culturally suitable.
But Prof Mahmoud said things are changing now.
"This is not true for most UAE families in recent times," he said. "In programmes such as business, law, communications and medicine, UAE girls are enrolled in greater numbers than males and they know that future jobs will entail working in a mixed gender environment. Yet their families do not deter them from joining such programmes."
The attraction of the public sector, he said, is based more on compensation and benefits.
"Private-sector jobs usually mean long working hours and low pay when compared to public sector jobs."
Ms Ghazal said if there were better communication on these careers and market demand, there would in turn be more interest.
Prof Mahmoud agreed that a lack of quality career counselling at schools meant girls were unaware of their prospects. In addition, he said girls at government schools lacked inspiration.
"Science teachers do not inspire or motivate the students when they employ very traditional and rather boring and unattractive methods in teaching science subjects. Thus we lose the students during the early formative years," he said.
Alia Alemadi, 19, an Emirati mechanical engineering student at American University of Sharjah (AUS), where only 30 per cent of its engineering students are female, said the working environments of STE careers are no longer a deterrent. Alia, from Dubai, said: "In the past, women would have been put off by the working conditions but it is certainly changing now and women's needs are really taken into consideration.
"I can already see great progress in these areas regarding how women are treated in the workplace."
She emphasised that it is important women are given the same opportunities as men.
"When Mubadala came to AUS, I asked if women engineers can work out in the field instead of just doing office work like most places and [the representative] said that it is definite and they also offer the special uniform clothes just like men."