How we can help female STEM talent thrive in the Mena region

The region’s tech sector is flourishing, and we have some amazing tech unicorns —many of them established and/or run by women

By Sara Sabry

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Published: Sun 18 Jun 2023, 10:30 PM

Last updated: Sun 18 Jun 2023, 10:31 PM

A huge bank of female talent is emerging in the Mena region’s science and technology sector, and I am delighted to see so many young women attracted to something so close to my heart.

Unesco estimates that up to 57 per cent of STEM graduates in the Arab world are female, compared to around 35 percent in the United States and 33 per cent in Europe.

The region’s tech sector is flourishing, thanks to our very smart, educated and highly motivated population, and we have some amazing tech unicorns —many of them established and/or run by women.

Being the first Arab woman and the first African woman to go to space, I am of course paying close attention to what is happening in this field and am heartened to see the progress being made there. The UAE is doing a lot in this area, while Rayyanah Barnawi recently became the first Saudi female astronaut.

However, before we get carried away, we have to accept that while the region is doing well and has a large percentage of women graduating in STEM subjects, it is currently lagging behind in terms of transferring that knowledge and talent into the workforce.

Hire us for our ability, not just to diversify

When I graduated, there were maybe just five women in my entire year, and you would find companies that required mechanical engineers needing to diversify. They would want to hire me just because I’m a woman, without even looking at my CV, so I said no. Women want to be hired, but we also want to be valued for what we bring to the table, not because of our gender.

It’s important that there is support, that there are more opportunities and less resistance, but it needs to be genuinely helpful to women, not simply a box ticking exercise. Life has taught me to always question people’s intentions, and being part of someone’s agenda has never been something I would allow myself to be involved in.

In both industry and education, we need to remove the unconscious bias we face. Most people are well intentioned, it’s simply about educating them so that people aren’t presented with some of the attitudes I came up against.

I was told not to study mechatronics because it would be too difficult for me as a girl. When I wanted to get into biomedical engineering, a lot of people said it was ridiculous to do something that I would never get a job in.

When I became involved in space, I was told that it would be a waste of time. While the reasons for these attitudes vary, it is clear that many of our regional cultures still feel that a successful career is linked to traditional gender based roles. These are, to put it mildly, outdated stereotypes, and a very discouraging and harmful environment to be in.

We need to educate people so that attitudes change, and this needs to start at a young age. That’s why representation matters — when young girls and boys see women in male dominated fields, when they see them do things that they were told they wouldn't be good at, when they see them speak up when we’re trained to stay quiet and not upset the masses, that’s when we will begin to see change in the system, in society, and in solving some of the biggest challenges we are facing as humanity.

One of the reasons I was keen to contribute to BLJ Worldwide's ‘Mena Tech 2023: Mapping the Technology Landscape’ report was because I wanted to highlight the challenges many of our talented female STEM graduates face, and how their success is not only important, but a necessity at this point.

What women bring to the table was poorly understood, but with more female leaders, we are beginning to really see the true value of our work, and in my opinion, it is time we see this world run by women. We bring life to Earth, so it makes the most sense that we put ourselves in positions to protect it and to help push it forward. My own life’s mission is to see humanity become multiplanetary, and to see more human justice here on Earth - that is what I have dedicated my life to.

The importance of education

I graduated in Mechanical Engineering at the American University of Cairo, went on to obtain my masters in Biomedical Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, and after working in the tech industry for a few years, I went back to academia and am now a PhD student in Aerospace at the University of North Dakota while being the CEO of Deep Space Initiative as well as working with a number of other space companies. I feel very fortunate to have received a quality education because it gave me control over my life, and to believe in being able to create change in the world. My parents sacrificed so much for me and my siblings to get a proper education, and more needs to be said about just how vitally important this is.

I see a lot of kids dropping out of schools and universities in Egypt because they need to support themselves and their families economically and they believe that if they get a job now, instead of graduating, that it’s going to be better for them in the long run. That’s simply not the case; it’s preventing them from achieving more, not being aware of how much control over your life education can give you.

My parents valued education above all else, and I was lucky to grow up in such a household. I witnessed how hard it was for my parents to afford it, how they would hide how much they were struggling at times just so that we can focus on our homework and not worry about this.

The overall quality of education in this region is great and widespread, but some Mena-based engineers, doctors, and teachers are surprisingly poorly paid, which seems deeply unfair, as they, quite literally, hold the next generation in their hands.

Support structure

It is important to have role models, but I never really saw anyone that looked like me achieve what I thought I wanted to do. When I first started getting into the space field, I reached out to Dr. Jennifer Fogarty, who was the Chief Scientist at Nasa for 15 years. She was one of my idols, and I am so grateful for everything she did for me. She believed in me, she supported me; she trusted me enough to start a company together because we both believed in the same cause. There are now many communities in the region where female leaders are significantly helping other women, and this is invaluable because they know first-hand how difficult it is to make it.

My parents were also an incalculably great support system. My dad always made my sister and I feel that girls are just as capable as boys, and my mum was one of the first electrical engineers to graduate from the American University in Lebanon. She moved to Saudi Arabia because of the war, and she ran a hospital. She really built the hospital from nothing and was probably the only female electrical engineer at the time, so everyone in Saudi knows her. One Saudi man saw how capable she was, and gave her an opportunity that changed her life. My father also started from nothing, worked at least 2-3 jobs at the same time, obtained his PhD while having 3 kids to support, and has managed to build an empire. He is a true example of perseverance, and has taught me the importance of having exceptional work ethic, and how you should never sacrifice honesty and integrity no matter the cost.

(By Sara Sabry is CEO and Founder of Deep Space Initiative; and the first Arab and African woman to go to space)

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