Despite the efforts to redress the balance, women remain a minority in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions. This imbalance is most sharply felt in the Middle and North African regions, though there are louder calls from within these industries to encourage government, industry and academia to do more.

UNESCO figures from 2018 estimated that women accounted for a little over a quarter of all researchers, reflected in enrolment rates in STEM courses of under 10% globally. “These numbers are alarming,” said Dr. Anna Paolini, director of the UNESCO Office in Doha and representative for the Gulf and Yemen. “They call for action to close the gender gap in science, technology and innovation and equip the future generation with adequate skills and competencies, and harness the power of emerging new technology.” With research and innovation absolutely vital to addressing the current – and future – global challenges that we face, we simply cannot afford to allow the contributions of half of the world’s population to be missed.

COVID-19, and the global efforts to fight the disease, have demonstrated why this is so vital. Dr. Maha Al-Mozaini, an infectious diseases specialist and educator at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia. “It’s changing dramatically and quickly, and I believe they can bring a brighter future.” Female teachers, doctors, nurses and researchers have all been involved in the race to address the coronavirus pandemic – in the case of Al-Mozaini’s team in Saudi Arabia, 99 percent of her researchers are women.

The role of women in research roles in the Middle East is changing, with increasing numbers of women moving into STEM areas. In some cases – in the UAE, Oman, and Bahrain – women make up 62, 71, and 55% of university students in STEM subjects, respectively. Mentorship is seen as important, and supportive organisations, such as She Is Arab, an Arab women’s speakers’ platform which have highlighted the central role women have to play in research and innovation.

Paolini, sees school and the home as the key to inspiring girls and young women in the sciences… “It really shaped all of us,” Paolini said. “We all have a story that inspired how we are today. Everywhere in the world, we need more science, and we need more women in science.”