Female engineers are more common in Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia than in the United States – the enrollment rates of women in these countries are as high as 50 percent and many of us wonder why.
To find an answer, Washington State University researchers have been given a $589,200 grant to try and understand why a significantly higher number of women in predominately Muslim countries choose to study engineering than in the USA.
According to engineering Professor Nehal Abu-Lail, researchers are interested in learning what Muslim countries have to offer and the experiences that women have there which make them more likely to persist in engineering and continue graduate education.
Abu-Lail is one of the three WSU researchers and the co-principal investigator of the project. She also works as an associate professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU. Abu-Lail completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Jordan University of Science and Technology. All of her siblings (five girls and a boy) are engineers and so the research is a personal one: “Being from Jordan, I have a love for the discipline and want to retain the interest of my female students.”
This research is particularly puzzling in the case of Saudi Arabia, where women face socio-political and economic restrictions that mean men and women do not have the same rights and often opportunities – such as driving.
Julie Kmec, the other co-principal investigator in the study, explains that “in the United States, the government has spent a lot of money trying to develop programs and change curriculum to attract women to the field of engineering and science, with little success.”
Kmec wants to understand how Muslim countries have such a high female participation rate when there is no clear STEM campaign in place targeted at women. She says, “women’s engineering participation in predominantly Muslim countries is surprising for reasons beyond the absence of national STEM-focused efforts to increase representation.”
The research goal is to isolate what is creating the automatic assumption that engineering is a male subject (as is the case in the USA) and perhaps that’s part of the solution here – engineering isn’t a stereotypical male degree in these Muslim countries.
This article was written by Teuta Hoxha