Stem + Diversity = Innovation

Women are attracted to STEM when they see the specific and tangible contributions it makes to their communities and the people that live in them, says Dr Nadiya al Saady

When I was first asked to present at World Expo Milan a few years ago about women in science I immediately thought of Agnes Mary Clerke.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Agnes, she was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1842 and developed a passion for astronomy from a very early age. Her books and articles introduced astronomy to a wide public, capturing their interest whilst also winning her the respect of the scientific community. As an Omani I connect with Agnes, given our country’s rich maritime heritage – Ahmed Ibn Majid, an Omani cartographer, was Vasco da Gama’s navigator and guided him from Africa to India with his knowledge of the stars and planets.

Her first important article, Copernicus in Italy, was published in the Edinburgh Review in October 1877. And she achieved worldwide recognition in 1885, with the publication of her work: A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century – a work so thorough that it’s still the standard text on the subject today.


Agnes’ personal and professional journey took her across the world, and even to the to the moon where NASA named a crater in her honour in 2007.

Given my Milan presentation, it was relevant as well as important to mention and recognise the Italian particle physicist,

Dr Fabiola Gianotti. Fabiola played a leading role in the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 and has recently been selected by the CERN Council to be the organisation’s next director-general. She’s also a member of the recently established Scientific Advisory Board of the UN secretary general. Indeed, Fabiola’s reputation has gone beyond the confines of particle physics. She was ranked fifth in Time magazine's 2012 Personality of the Year and included among the Top 100 most influential women by Forbes magazine in 2013.

Fabiola, like Agnes before her, is fascinated by the origin and make-up of the universe. It’s women like Agnes and Fabiola that have shaped so much of our world today.

There’s no doubt that the trail blazed by these two women recognised no boundaries. But yet, for most women, whatever their nationality, the route to careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is still not without obstacles.

On a personal note, I’ve been blessed in my scientific career by working with outstanding female colleagues. Today, as the executive director of the Oman Animal, Plant & Genetic Resources Center (OAPGRC), I am proud to say that 80 per cent of my team in Muscat are women.

Indeed, our government, under the wise leadership of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has promoted STEM among girls and women and we now have female biologists, chemists, engineers, doctors, architects, physicists. We have women conducting research into blood cancer, cleaning up oil spills, designing sustainable, eco-friendly housing and more. But we need more women like these. They’re still a minority.

With this in mind, OAPGRC has undertaken various measures to spread interest in STEM among girls and women. Recent examples being OAPGRC’s highly

successful 11-week national science roadshow aimed at 8 – 12 year-old Omani schoolchildren, where we included female demonstrators to act as positive role models for young girls; our monthly Science Café meetings designed to encourage conversation, debate, interaction and dialogue between scientists and Oman’s public, at which we prioritise female speakers.

Indeed, it is constant initiatives like these that play key roles in transforming attitudes to STEM and in debunking existing stereotypes about the role of women in these important fields.

Attracting and retaining more women into the STEM workplace will, in my view, help maximise Oman’s innovation, creativity and competitiveness. Today, scientists are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time. However, when women aren’t involved enough in science, experiences and needs that are unique to women can often be overlooked.

In Unlocking the Clubhouse, Carnegie Mellon scientists Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher discuss the fact that some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women's voices were literally unheard. Similar cases are found in other industries. For instance, a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable injuries to women and children.

With a more diverse STEM workforce, scientific and technological products and services, are more likely to represent all users and the direction of scientific inquiry guided by a broader range of experiences.

From my experience in the scientific community, I believe diverse teams do better than single-sex teams. When we bring the power of different people from different backgrounds, different sexes and different nationalities together we’ll solve problems quicker and better.

Sadly, many STEM qualified women who enter the workforce leave soon after they begin employment. A phenomenon that is common across the world.

According to a Harvard Business Review special led by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 41 per cent of highly qualified scientists, engineers and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders are female, yet more than 54 per cent of them drop out between their mid-to-late thirties. Why is this? The answer isn’t genetic disposition or lack of interest. If this were the case, then female STEM students would underperform their male counterparts at school and university.

Indeed, research shows the contrary: women outperform men academically, receive more awards and have higher graduation rates and better attitudes toward education. Case studies and statistical research consistently suggest that the need to

balance career and family, the lack of professional mentors and STEM’s lack of appealing representation, image in other words, are key factors in persuading women either not to pursue a STEM career or leave the STEM workforce early.

For female scientists, marriage and family create demands that can cut short a promising STEM career. In his 2001 book, From Scarcity to Visibility: Gender Differences in the Careers of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers, Scott Long, distinguished professor and Chancellor's Professor of Sociology and Statistics at Indiana University reported that single men and single women participate about equally in the STEM workforce. In contrast, a married female PhD is 13 per cent less likely to be employed than a married male PhD. If the woman is married with young children, she is 30 per cent less likely than a single man to be employed.

Dozens of studies have documented the struggle to balance career and family. A survey carried out by Georgia Tech’s Professor Sue Rosser found that among 450 female scientists and engineers employed at US research universities, more than 70 per cent cited the need to balance career and family as the most significant challenge facing their professional advancement.

In a 2004 issue of Academe, University of California, Berkeley, researchers Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden reported on a study using data from the 1979–95 National Science Foundation Surveys on Doctoral Recipients. They found that male faculty members who start families within five years of receiving their PhDs are 38 per cent more likely to earn tenure than women who do the same.

For every three women who take a fast-track university job before having a child, only one ever becomes a mother. In contrast, the group Mason and Goulden define as ‘second-tier’ women PhDs – those who aren’t working or who are adjunct, part-time, or ‘gypsy’ scholars and teachers – have children and experience marital stability much like men who become professors.

Another major source of leakage in the female STEM pipeline is the lack of professional mentoring. It is basically the relationship in which an experienced colleague supports a junior, covering both professional and personal support, with the common goal to plan, build and foster a successful career in science. Ideally, mentoring should be confidential and voluntary, both for the mentor and mentee.

Studies by MIT’s Fiona Murray and Leigh Graham found that women scientists may have fewer graduate and postdoctoral students to support their work than men and less diverse networks. In addition, women faculty report fewer referrals to participate as consultants, serve on science advisory boards and interact with the business community.

Promotion of women to leadership positions is also a key part of the mentor’s role. This may range from leadership positions within a research team, to relevant scientific committees, review panels and roles in national research bodies.

As part of the promotion of women in STEM, international prominence and recognition is important. To this end, mentorship should also include creating opportunities for women to present their research at the highest levels and at prestigious international STEM events.

Speaking as a scientist and mentor, I believe we need more women in science at every level, and it’s our collective responsibility as a scientific community to ensure this happens in a planned, strategic and sustainable manner. Mentoring will, without doubt, help us achieve this goal.

In addition to mentoring, the public’s image of STEM has to be tackled. We need to create and promote female STEM role models. Women that have gone through the STEM journey and understand its importance, joy and relevance. Women like Baroness Susan Greenfield in the UK – scientist, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords, Professor Dr Hayat sl Sindi from Saudi Arabia, one of the first female members of the consultative assembly in Saudi Arabia and a visiting scholar at Harvard, and Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian national and professor of mathematics at Stanford University she is both the first woman and the first Iranian honoured with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.

If we’re to increase the number of women in STEM then we have to start from a young age – raising children’s awareness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and raising their curiosity. But if you read magazines and watch TV and see nobody else doing it, then why would you think it’s a rewarding career path? Scientists are too often portrayed on screen as so dedicated that they spend most of the day in the lab, have no dress sense, are unattractive, have few, if any, friends or romantic interests, and are generally socially awkward. This is highly inaccurate.

What we need is the female scientist action hero, serving as the voice and force for good. A better screen image of scientists could lead more girls and women into STEM fields and to greater public support for projects ranging from space exploration to climate change.

Finally, we have to reject the portrayal of women scientists as a special interest group. Women constitute half of Oman’s population and today earn 59 per cent of the sultanate’s undergraduate degrees. Losing STEM-trained women from the workforce due to the lack of mentoring or failure to identify strong, female STEM role models would be a significant blow to society as well as science.

Women are attracted to STEM when they see the specific and tangible contributions it makes to their communities and the people that live in them. Indeed, STEM careers, as discovered by Agnes and Fabiola, provide incredible opportunities to explore interesting and relevant questions as well as to creatively solve a wide range of problems to help society. It’s the kind of job that should be ideal for anyone with an inquiring mind.



Dr Nadiya al Saady

Executive director, Oman Animal and Plant Genetic Research Centre

Stem + Diversity = Innovation
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