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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UAE bucks global trend as women lead the way in science studies

More women in the UAE and the rest of the Middle East are enrolling in science and technology subjects than in many countries

Dr Habiba Alsafar, director of Khalifa University Centre for Biotechnology, says women are helping each other to succeed in their chosen fields. Delores Johnson / The National    
Dr Habiba Alsafar, director of Khalifa University Centre for Biotechnology, says women are helping each other to succeed in their chosen fields. Delores Johnson / The National    

Almost eight in 10 learners taking computer science studies in the UAE are female – bucking a global trend.

A recent report by Times Higher Education found the number of female students in the country enrolling in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is far higher than in many other countries, such as the UK, Canada, Germany and France.

The study found 77 per cent of students taking computer science classes in the UAE are female – ranking well above the figure of 19.8 per cent in Canada, 17.9 per cent in France and 17.1 per cent in the UK. In Oman, 93 per cent of computer-science studies are female.

Female participation in engineering is also high, with 44.5 per cent of students in the UAE being female, well above 20.8 per cent in Germany, 20.4 per cent in Canada and 18 per cent in the UK.

Kuwait sees 69.9 per cent female enrolment in the discipline, whereas Oman has 46.7 per cent and Bahrain 44 per cent.

A senior doctor in the UAE believes women in Stem fields are acting as mentors for each other in the field, explaining why a high number of students are female.

Dr Habiba Alsafar, director of Khalifa University Centre for Biotechnology, said: "That’s the culture here. The work is in the lab and women feel comfortable in this setting. Also, women want to help the community.

“Men think of supporting a family and want the best job for economic reasons. Thus, they think more of the business sector. We want more men in the science field.

“Biomedical engineering is in its infancy and only starting to gain traction here. There is limited infrastructure and national funding opportunities and access to state-of-the art facilities, research projects and research funding are limited. Therefore, progression is limited by the availability of resources, infrastructure, funding and opportunities."

Ms Alsafar said that the encouraging statistics are a far cry from her own formative experiences attempting to carve out her career.

In Ms Alsafar’s biochemistry class at San Diego State University, there were two women out of 30 students.

“My family was most supportive of my studies. There were individuals who were negative, but this group was a minority. My classmates were very supportive and always willing to help,” she said.

Sabha AlDhafri has risen to the ranks of assistant vice president and area manager at Union National Bank in Al Ain.

While she welcomes more opportunities for women to make their way in the workplace, she feels there is still more work to be done.

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Ms AlDhafri was at a career fair more than 20 years ago when she dropped in her CV and got a job at Union National Bank. At the time, there were very few Emirati women at the branch, though there are more now.

Ms AlDhafri said she faced many challenges in her initial days and is trying to help young women who have no experience in dealing with customers or reading operation manuals.

“When I joined the bank, everything was manual and I had to learn things by myself. My probation was a whole year and it was too much for me. I know the difficulties I faced in the beginning of my career,” she said.

“We do need more Emirati women in banking,” she added.

Though many women are studying science, business remains the most popular subject in the country with more than one out of two graduates studying the discipline.

A new report from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority revealed that 15.2 per cent of graduates are engineers and 8.2 per cent study information technology.

Hoda Al Khzaimi, the director of Centre of Cyber Security at NYU Abu Dhabi, has recently been installed as the new president of the Emirates Digital Association for Women, a body set up to promote the efforts of women in STEM and art subjects.

She is determined to help others break down the gender barriers – after being forced to overcome doubts placed on her ability merely because of her gender.

“I have been told I can’t do it. Not by family, but by people in the field: ‘This field is very difficult. You are a lady.’ The number of time I have heard that I can’t do it is countless. It’s what made me do this. I was so curious," she said.

“I was raised by parents who believed that a good degree is your ticket to a career. I always felt like I’m responsible for contributing to this country and had the intention to give back and change lives. This is why I got to this stage.

“We tend to have so many girls in Stem subjects. I think accessibility to information is important. At the association, we have women coming from different industries and ministries within UAE. As an Emirati woman in a male-dominated profession, work is competitive, interesting and a permanent learning curve.”