Improving access to engineering careers for women in Africa and in the Arab States

Students learning about engineering principles at the 2013 Nigerian engineering outreach programme.

Science and engineering hold important answers to key questions like climate change and sustainable development that we must address today. A estimated 2.5 million new engineers and technicians are required in sub-Saharan Africa alone to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of improved access to clean water and sanitation. To achieve such aims, we need to attract every young mind to engineering, especially in the developing world, where attracting more women to fields in which they are underrepresented must be a part of the solution.

While young women only represent 7 to 12 % of engineering students in Africa, their percentage in North Africa and the Middle East is comparable, and in some cases higher, than in Europe and North America. In some Arab States, women account for more than half of the engineering student population. But the number of female engineering graduates who go on to work in engineering professions in the region is much lower.

In order to better understand the obstacles keeping women from either taking an interest in engineering or pursuing a career in engineering, women engineers, policy makers and professionals participated in a workshop at UNESCO in Paris earlier this week. The objective was to identify the challenges keeping women away from engineering professions, and to provide an impulse for solution-driven initiatives.

No country today can afford to leave aside 50 % of its creative genius, 50 % of its innovation, 50 % of its economic drivers. This is why gender equality in engineering is so important” said Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, in her message to the participants. She emphasized that science and engineering hold answers for promoting gender equality, for making the most of the creativity of every member of society. Clearly, despite the importance of engineers in improving societies, everyone does not participate equally. “We need to help them transition into the employment market,” she continued.

Young Women Engineers in their own words: testimonies from Kenya and Gabon.

In Africa, the overall percentage of young women pursuing higher education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is relatively low, although the situation varies greatly according to country. According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, approximately 30% of women in Niger study engineering at the tertiary level but only 6% in Mali. After leaving university, only 10% of the engineering workforce is female in South Africa and 8% in Kenya.

Revamping engineering’s image

© UNESCO/P. Chiang-Joo
Laila Rashed Iskandar, the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs in Egypt, addresses the public and speakers at the IGU-UNESCO Workshop on Women in Engineering, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on 10 December 2013.

Participants found that it is difficult for the public to understand how engineers contribute to society. Abstract curricula need to be linked with their practical results through a “hands on” approach at the primary and secondary level. Showcasing the roles engineers play in developing solutions for contemporary issues, such as providing sustainable energy for all or addressing climate change-related challenges, can help promote STEM education for young African women while raising awareness on the socio-economic benefits women engineers can contribute to society.

Visible role models are needed to reduce cultural self-restrictions keeping women away from STEM subjects. The increasing number of women teaching the sciences at the tertiary level certainly contribute to changing the stereotypes associated with technical subjects. A more inviting family environment is also extremely important for altering gender-based stereotypes. Young girls can be taught that they can play an active part in society through engineering, but they will need family, institutional and social support to access the engineering workforce.

Addressing marginalization

According to the World Bank, the percentage of women studying engineering and the sciences in the Middle East and North Africa is comparable to and higher than in more developed countries. Yet few women who graduate with engineering qualifications go into engineering professions. Participants agreed that societies see women as delicate and engineering as bold. Showcasing how women have contributed to developing physical infrastructures can be the impetus for changing public understanding on the roles of women in Arab societies.

Young Women Engineers in their own words: testimonies from Kuwait and Algeria.

Additionally, conditions on the ground are often not adapted to women’s needs, as they are expected to take office jobs. Lack of attention and supporting policies either force women to stagnate or drive them away from such careers altogether. Policies are needed to address the marginalization of women in these fields.

In other instances, women are effectively playing the role of engineers in their communities, as holders of informal local knowledge of environmental sustainability and recycling. Efforts are needed to recognize their expertise, and education is necessary to change the situation so that formally-trained female engineers become accepted in these societies.

The workshop was organized through a partnership with the International Gas Union (IGU) with the support of Total, GDF Suez, Oman LNG and Qatargas. UNESCO and IGU will continue work together to increase awareness of the issues facing women in engineers and advocate policy recommendations to improve their representation in engineering disciplines. Following this workshop, UNESCO and the IGU Task Force, which is composed of representatives from the global gas community, will draft a report based on the conclusions of these roundtables. This report will be published and its policy recommendations will be reviewed at the World Gas Conference, which will be held in June 2015 in Paris.

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