Arab women scientists call out gender discrimination in the workplace

Published online 9 May 2019

Arab women scientists are striving to prove themselves in institutions that are often male dominated.

Nadia El-Awady

Nature Middle East contacted Arab women scientists registered with the Request a Woman Scientist platform, to discover the main gender-related challenges they face and how they might be overcome.

25 women (22%) from 12 Arab countries responded from the total 114 who are registered. Their positions ranged from undergraduate students to a university vice president.

Their responses suggest that women face a variety of gender-related challenges common to workplaces around the world. Their voices resonate with frustration and strength. 

Below are excerpts from some of the responses we received.

My team, which is 99% female, finds it very difficult to believe they can have a successful career in science. This is because there is a lack of local roles models reflected in the number of women leading departments or research projects.

Women in the Arab world are underrepresented at senior levels. I think it will only change when there are more women in male-dominated fields and in positions of power within the scientific community. Also when prestigious journals highlight the roles of junior and senior women scientists.

Malak Abedalthagafi, Research Professor, Life Science and Environmental Institute, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia

My institution is an excellent place to be a woman in science. My institute might be an exception, but I haven’t faced gender-specific problems. My PhD supervisor is a woman and has fully supported me. The only incident I recall was a colleague who would ‘man-terrupt’ me in meetings or try to dismiss my ideas. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself and it wasn’t really a challenge. Perhaps I am lucky to be working at my institute.

I think more media attention for women in science in Arab countries would be useful, especially talking about their research, their personal stories, and how they balance their lives. This would encourage more women to pursue a scientific career. There is also a need for more awards and funding for women in science in Arab countries, and for conferences that connect women in science generally and in Arab countries specifically. It is sometimes challenging to reach people in the same field in neighbouring countries.

Laila Ziko, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, Department of Biology, American University in Cairo

I don’t face challenges that impact my science career and I can overcome them if they appear. I hope that women impose their presence, especially in the field of advanced science, in order to be role models that have an impact on countries that still place obstacles in women’s paths.

Suhad A. Yasin, Lecturer / PhD student in polymer chemistry, University of Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq

Due to gender inequality, it’s difficult to reach a position of power and leadership. In addition, it’s difficult to find a balance between family life and work. We need more fellowships dedicated to women in order to motivate them, conference organizers should work harder to have better representation from women, and the media should highlight the research of women scientists in the region.

Dima El Safadi, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Public Health, Lebanese University, Lebanon

There is gender inequality everywhere, and sadly in universities as well. The gender-related challenges include lack of recognition for scientific contribution, lack of financial support, unequal pay in the private sector, and unequal opportunities at high-level positions. The gender inequality challenges are not only biased against women, but also men. Female scientists are usually considered easy to manage (not looking for trouble), which gives them a recruitment advantage in some cases. The academic environment is starting to change, with more female scientists working at the university, and I think the working environment is also changing. I have worked with very supportive male colleagues. The new generation is changing but we still have work to do to fight gender inequalities.     

I think Arab women scientists should be supportive of each other. We should not demand change; we should make it happen with our own hands. We should call out gender discrimination against men and women. One of the biggest issues I have faced is having confidence in my work and myself. It took encouragement and recognition from an American professor that I met in a conference in Paris to believe in myself. In my opinion, Arab women need to have confidence in their work and their scientific capacity.

Sara Haddou Amar, Visiting Professor, Industrial and Logistics Engineering, National School of Applied Sciences, Morocco

Since I defended my PhD in 2016, I recruited three master’s students to work with me. Two of them were women. They both told me they won't be able to travel for internships, courses, workshops or conferences because their parents won’t let them. That was very bad news, because we are working on cutting-edge techniques, and international collaborations are mandatory for our project development. The problem is that, in our Arab societies, women are often [considered the responsibility] of men (father, husband, big brother) or other women (mother), even when they are adults.  This is a big challenge for female empowerment. I am aware this is not specific to women in science, but it reflects how the subjugation of women can negatively affect the development of individuals, groups, institutions and the country.

Emna Harigua, Postdoctoral Researcher, Laboratory of Molecular Epidemiology and Experimental Pathology, Institut Pasteur de Tunis, Tunisia

In Qatar, there is a lot of support for women in the education sector. The first woman minister in the Gulf was appointed in Qatar in 2003 for education. Currently, more than 76 per cent of the students at Qatar University are women. Due to their family responsibilities and according to state law, more vacations are possible for women compared to men. However, challenges still exist for women everywhere, regardless of the institution. Long working hours and maintaining a work-life balance in academia is always a struggle.

The higher education sector needs more collaboration between scientists from around the world. I would like to see initiatives and support for young scholars and would like to see STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics] education become more accepted and accepting of young women. This could be achieved through having more emphasis on STEAM education from an early age. Innovation is the key to success and this cannot happen without equal input from everyone in the field. It is a great loss to the sciences if women are shut out and feel silenced through lack of recognition or appreciation.

Mariam Al-Maadeed, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, Qatar University

Women in my society face community constraints in addition to the lack of solutions that are friendly to working women, especially those with families that need flexibility to care for children. My main challenge is what society thinks is the ‘norm’. A ‘normal’ female has to prioritize her family ahead of everything. Her work should come second, third or tenth after her social obligations. The other challenge is prejudice against women. Some men think we are inferior to them and less smart. We have to work double or triple the hours of men to make a name for ourselves and to get the respect we deserve.

Recognition must start with the family. I was lucky to have a family that celebrated me as a woman and a scientist. Next, recognition is needed at the university where we work. We are rarely celebrated for the work we do with awards or honours. Finally, the media should play a major role in honouring women scientists.

Lubna Tahtamouni, Chair/Associate Professor, Department of Biology and Biotechnology, The Hashemite University, Jordan

The main challenge is getting women involved in open scientific activities, like public lectures and community research activities. In many cases, the gender balance is distorted and men take over, leading the activity.

Suad Sulaiman, Professor of parasitology, Health and Environment Advisor to the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences 

The main gender challenge in my conservative country is that a lot of burden is placed on women’s shoulders [in their private/family lives], which delays success in their careers. A study we conducted in Sudan under the UNESCO and SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency) umbrellas concluded that there is no gender gap among female Sudanese scientists in their early career, but this gap widens in higher positions.

Mai Mamoun Ali Hassan, Associate Professor, forest eco-physiology, Forest and Gum Arabic Research Center, Sudan

Throughout my employment at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research over the past two years, I have faced the typical challenges associated with joining and adjusting to any work environment. Thankfully, however, none of these have been gender-related. The challenges I have faced thus far, which mainly manifest in the form of financial, political, and bureaucratic hurdles that ubiquitously hinder progress within research settings in this region and beyond, have no connection to gender. In fact, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research is witnessing the successful and productive reign of its first-ever female director general. Such a progressive appointment may be the underlying driver behind the lack of gender-related challenges I have experienced at the institute.

The lack of recognition for the work of Arab women scientists is preceded by the lack of recognition for the work of Arab scientists in general, both men and women. This can be attributed to at least two issues: an overall lack of awareness among the local general population about the nature of scientific research, and a consequently lacklustre reputation for scientific research activities within and outside the region. 

Saja Adel Fakhraldeen, Assistant Research Scientist, Environment and Life Sciences Research Center, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research

I think women that come from the Middle East face lots of obstacles, starting from trying to get a good education. Women struggle to have a well-balanced life, including taking care of children, family or even parents. I believe every woman is strong enough to play many roles, to challenge society with its unfair way of judging, to be smart wives, magnificent mothers and brilliant leaders. They just need to be trusted and supported. Obstacles include unfair distribution of opportunities, duty loads, and restrictions from families for studying and training abroad.

Alshymaa Yusef Hassan, Research Assistant, Zewail City of Science and Technology, Egypt

I wish we were treated simply as scientists and not ‘women scientists’. We never see the term ‘men scientists’. Women have the same abilities as men and should be treated equally. Let us start with removing the label of ‘women scientists’. Sometimes the problem is us, when we are too scared to take initiatives or leadership roles.

Nathalie K. Zgheib, MD, Associate Professor, Pharmacology and Toxicology, American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Give Arab women scientists more recognition for the work they do. Women need to believe in themselves and support each other. They also need to be represented fairly at the top of the hierarchy.

Sanaa N. Alhadidi, PhD in ecological entomology, University of Diyala, Iraq

I think the main issue is supporting women’s education. Even though we are in the 21st century, there are still women in Arab countries that cannot read and write. Also, many families think women should stay at home and that there is no need for going to school.

Leena Tarig, medical student, University of Khartoum, Sudan