Monday, August 13, 2007

Women in Science News Roundup: Middle East Edition

I was hoping to have a couple more items before posting, but this is what I've got:

In Saudi Arabia women are constrained from entering many occupations because of strict segregation of the sexes. This affects their eduction as well: The women's program at King Saud University, for example, does not offer engineering courses to women "on the premise that a profession in engineering would be impossible to pursue in the context of sex-segregation practices." In information technology at least, the opportunities for women may be opening up, as the Saudi Arabian government and private companies set up women-only work centers. What surprises me is that more Saudi women are more likely than men to have advanced degrees, as reported in this Arab News article.

Nearly 250,000 Saudi women currently work at government departments and 45,000 others at private firms. The number of Saudi women is expected to exceed that of their Saudi male counterparts by 2010 when the Saudi population is estimated to cross 26 million, according to a report by the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Furthermore, Saudi women are more likely to have advanced degrees than the men.
Segregated workplaces and telecommuting allow these women to join the workforce.
Telecommuting seems fit for Saudi society, which is grappling with the moral implications of allowing men and women to work together. Saudi Arabia is a conservative society, and contrary to popular notions in the West that men enforce these gender-segregation laws on women, a lot of Saudi women say they prefer to have places reserved for them so long as they be granted equal access to jobs and services.
It's not surprising to me that Saudi women's primary concern is to have equal access to jobs and services. While telecommuting seems to work for IT, I'm not sure how that could translate into jobs in science and engineering that cannot be performed at home or that require equipment that would be too expensive to have in duplicate laboratories for men and women.

In contrast is the article in the Times Online about Sheikha Lubna Al Wasimi, computer scientist and finance minister of the United Arab Emirates. She was born into a UAE royal family, traveled to Britain for secondary school, and ended earning a degree in computer science and systems engineering at one of the California State University campuses.
“I always loved science and technology, so I decided to become a geek,” she said. On graduation, she turned down job offers in America and headed home. Her family expected her to work for the government, but she joined an Indian-owned software-development firm, Datamation. “I was the only Arab and the only woman and they said I would never cut it . . . story of my life.”
[. . . ]
Most of the men dismissed her, but she quickly established her credentials by coming up with a computerised manifest system that reduced the time it took to handle cargo containers from one hour to 10 minutes.

The innovation earned her the UAE’s Distinguished Employee Award in 2000 – the first woman to bag the honour – and prompted Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then chairman of Dubai Ports and Customs, to give her a £2.5m grant to set up a new company,, to develop government and business-to-business e-commerce. The firm is now the biggest e-commerce outfit in the Middle East.
With that experience she was eventually offered the Finance Minister position. What irritates me is that Lubna, who never married, is vehemently not a feminist, because that isn't "feminine."
At a youthful-looking 49, surely there’s still time, especially as she now has her own perfume line? Lubna giggles.

“Quite right. You know it’s a very feminine fragrance and I’m not a feminist. I like being a lady. I don’t like this business of women marching. A woman should be beautiful, eloquent, smart and hard-working but, above all, feminine.”

I think it's a shame she considers fighting for her countrywomen to have similar opportunities that she had because of her family background to be "unfeminine."

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