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Women in STEM: Challenging the challenge narrative

Published online 24 June 2020

UK-based Egyptian computer science lecturer Mai Elshehaly1  considers the need for a more inclusive narrative that recognizes the diversity of women in STEM.

Mai Elshehaly

Mai Elshehaly is a lecturer in computer science at the University of Bradford, UK.
Mai Elshehaly is a lecturer in computer science at the University of Bradford, UK.
Recently, two young women from very different backgrounds and stages in their education asked me if a successful academic career in computer science was possible for ‘someone like them’. Their questions made me think about what was behind the lack of confidence in their ability to excel.

Many have written about the causes that lead to this sort of anxiety2 and the strategies needed to mitigate it. My 17 years in computer science have exposed me to some of the challenges and opportunities facing women in computing and, more generally, in STEM careers. Two in particular have caught my attention.

The awareness challenge

In academia we are taught that implicit bias can affect our judgment in many ways and that awareness of this bias is the first step towards overcoming it. 

Being aware of something makes us better equipped to assess a situation and react in a timely and effective manner.  

Many years ago while attending a professional development seminar, I discovered that I was ill-equipped to explain why I strongly felt that women in Egypt did not have equal career opportunities despite being informed that the percentage of women enrolled in and graduating with degrees in STEM fields in the Arab region is relatively high3. This brought home my limited awareness on the subject. 

Soon after, I travelled to America for my PhD. There, it was clear to everyone that there was an underrepresentation of women in the computing workforce that needed to be addressed. I remember Barbara Ryder, our department head at Virginia Tech, enthusiastically telling me about the red chair she had placed in the lobby to advocate for a nationwide campaign called Sit With Me4. Sitting in the chair symbolized recognition of the importance of the conversation around women’s contributions to computing. Being naturally exposed to this sort of daily dose of awareness brought me a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing women in computing today. 

Being aware of something makes us better equipped to assess a situation and react in a timely and effective manner. 

The stagnant or sometimes even declining numbers of women earning STEM degrees at American universities5 called for such national efforts, but the situation in the Arab region appeared to be different. Nonetheless, the challenges that women face in STEM careers in the region are not less testing than those we find in other parts of the world. The only difference, in my experience, is in the level of our exposure to the topic. 

As I slowly built my awareness in America, I began to look back at situations I faced in Egypt in the past. For example, on my first day as a lab demonstrator at Suez Canal University in Egypt, the dean of faculty welcomed me and ‘jokingly’ warned against what he referred to as a typical career trajectory for women. “You’ve done well so far. Don’t get pregnant and stay at home!” he said lightly. His words felt like bullets, but I wasn’t equipped to respond, simply because I wasn’t aware of the ‘stereotype threat’ that inspired his comment. I later learned this type of threat can seriously affect a woman’s performance6. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally built the confidence to apply for graduate school. I don’t know how much of my confidence was affected by the dean’s words. However, without a doubt, comments like his became much less memorable as my awareness improved over the years. 

The nested minority

Imagine being the only woman in a classroom with 22 people. Now imagine being the only person in the room who speaks Arabic as a first language, the only one with children, and the only one who wears a headscarf.

Diversity is not always fully captured in the narrative of women in STEM. The two young women who asked me if a career in computer science was possible for “someone like them” both felt that the popular narrative did not apply to them. I remember feeling similarly at a conference in Minneapolis about women in computing, when the speaker included an image in her slides of women belonging to “less privileged parts of the world”. The photo showed a group of fully covered Middle Eastern women in the desert with a few men appearing to keep them together as a group. Although the women in the picture may represent one type of woman in our region, I really wished, as one of the very few Middle Eastern women in the room, that the participants had also been informed about the women of my country who marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their right to vote at the same time Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement in America. I wished they were informed about the millions of brilliant Arab women fighting against prejudice7 and stereotyping at home and around the world. This is why we can’t just stop at saying that the representation of women in STEM matters, but we must explain that it matters in different ways to the diverse communities in STEM. Or as computer scientist Manuel Pérez-Quiñones of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte brilliantly puts it: “Same struggle, different differences”8

Diversity is not always fully captured in the narrative of women in STEM.

Practical solutions

Many factors make it very difficult to propose solutions to the challenges that face women in STEM. There is no single answer that fits all scenarios. However, acknowledging the nested levels of diversity in STEM is one step towards a solution. Promoting a narrative for diversity and inclusion that captures the different facets of the challenges at the community and sub-community levels can help deliver a more effective message. 

This is not to say that we should stop highlighting the challenges faced by the global community of women in STEM fields. In fact, now more than ever, with COVID-19 taking a toll on women’s research outputs9, the conversation around the balance between parenting responsibilities and career objectives, for example, is an important one to have. 

It is also important, however, to augment this global discussion with more localised and focused ones. Student chapters and organisations should be encouraged to build stronger links with internationally formed sub-communities of women in STEM, such as the Systers Affinity Groups10, where women technologists can connect with and offer support to members of their self-identified cultures. We, as academics, need to act as champions, mentors and points of contact to guide students and postgraduate researchers on how to organise among themselves, and coordinate with these organising bodies. 

Most importantly, we must deliver the message that academia in a STEM discipline is more than achievable for women of all backgrounds. We must convey the reassurance that if you are a woman in pursuit of a STEM degree and career, you will get there and we’ve got your back!


  1. Mai Elshehaly is a lecturer in computer science at the University of Bradford, UK. She received her MSc and PhD in computer science at Virginia Tech, USA. She spent one year as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and more recently was a research fellow at the University of Leeds. Elshehaly’s research focuses on how information visualisation contributes to constructing cognitive models that facilitate decision-making. You can find her on Twitter @MaiShehaly
  2. Rivers, Caryl. Selling anxiety: how the news media scare women. University Press of New England (2008).
  3. Islam, S. I. Arab women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields: The way forward. World Journal of Education https://doi.org/10.5430/wje.v7n6p12 (2017).
  4. www.sitwithme.org 
  5. Fernandez, M. America’s top STEM schools for women. Forbes. August 2019. 
  6. Goldsmith, B. Girls do badly at math when told boys better: Study. Reuters. May 2007. 
  7. Abedalthagafi, M. As a Saudi woman scientist, I’m tired of negative stereotypes. Nature Middle East. February 2018. 
  8. Pérez-Quiñones, M. A. What can CS departments do? Medium. June 2020. 
  9. Frederickson, M. Women are getting less research done than men during this coronavirus pandemic. The Conversation. May 2020. 
  10. https://anitab.org/systers/systers-communities/