Remove social barriers for women scientists

Published online 7 March 2013

Lihadh Al-Gazali

Just 1% of Saudi Arabia's researchers were women in 2011, according to the International Labour Organization. This low number is particularly surprising given that 65% of the nation's bachelor's science degrees go to women. Similar patterns are evident in the rest of the Arab Middle East. Women are clearly interested in science. But many cannot continue their careers because of limiting social attitudes in traditional Arab societies.

The expected role for women — graduates included — is housewifery. In some areas, women must ask the permission of the men of the household even to leave their house. Conservative families may not allow their daughters to work in mixed-gender workplaces. To pursue advanced training in research often requires postgraduate study elsewhere. If a woman wishes to do this, the household patriarch may mandate that a male family member accompanies her abroad.

Despite these restrictions, the pool of highly qualified women scientists continues to grow in some Arabic countries. According to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, women now represent 19% of researchers in the occupied Palestinian territories and 22% in Libya. Few of these women are university presidents, directors or department heads.

Having more women in these positions would help to shift cultural expectations. Leading Arab women scientists should continue to get involved in the political life of their countries, where they can be strong advocates for other women scientists. Developments such as the inclusion of leading women academics in the Shura council, Saudi Arabia's highest advisory council (which is now 20% female), and in the Federal National Council of the United Arab Emirates (22% female), are steps in the right direction. Highlighting success stories will encourage qualified Arab women to pursue careers in science. Role model and mentoring initiatives are also important. Examples of such programmes include the Stars of Science initiative by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and the TechGirls Exchange Program of the US Department of State.

Universities and professional organizations must help to educate the public about what science entails by inviting families to join conferences, careers days or networking events that include presentations of the achievements of women scientists.

Lihadh Al-Gazali is a clinical geneticist at the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain.

This commentary was first published 7 March, 2013 in Nature 495 , 35–38 doi:10.1038/495035a