GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Factors Affecting the Educational and Occupational Trajectories of Women in Engineering in Saudi Arabia and Four Comparative National Settings
Paper Proposal Text :
Issues surrounding women’s participation in engineering has confounded policymakers around the globe for a number of years (Fouad & Singh, 2011; AAUW, 2010; Crosno, Riegle-Crumb, & Mueller, 2007). While substantial achievement has been documented for women in computing and information technology in the Middle East, the recruitment and retention of women in engineering continues to face substantial challenges (Doumato, 2003; Baki, 2004).

Further exploration into the multi-faceted core causes of successes and challenges for gender parity in the global workforce is needed for three primary reasons (Charles & Bradley, 2009):
1. gender disparities limit the educational, career and life options of both men and women;
2. “separate but equal” distribution principles that result from gender disparities frequently do not yield equal pay or power;
3. such disparities prevent women from filling the growing global shortage of technical expertise.

The primary objective of our new multi-site case study is to identify the factors underlying and contributing to the educational and occupational trajectories of women in engineering in Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the US. These countries vary substantially in their economic, educational, cultural, historical, legal, geographic, and political contexts AND in women’s engineering representation. Perhaps most importantly, they differ in their levels of prosperity, the democratization of their political and social institutions, and in the prevailing cultural understandings of engineering, including its gender labeling.

Our research questions:
1. What motivates women’s choice of engineering as an educational/occupational path?
2. How do women perceive engineers and engineering work?
3. What societal, cultural, legal, and policy factors are perceived to support or constrain women’s participation in engineering fields of study or occupations?
4. What common themes emerge in different national sites and for women at different stages of study or professional practice? What heterogeneity can be observed?

We will compare majority Muslim countries with the US for two primary reasons: (1) Opportunity: Members of our research team have collaborated with female faculty in each targeted country and little is known or published about why female representation in engineering is relatively strong in these contexts. (2) Good Test Case: Muslim countries are typically depicted in Western media as less advanced with respect to gender equality than the US. Muslim women’s strong representation in what is one of the most extremely male-dominated fields in Western democracies is surprising to many in the US. This is an opportunity to surface and wrest biases and assumptions to challenge stereotypes.

In 2012, three of our researchers crossed borders and looked outside STEM education literature to gain perspectives into the multi-faceted core causes of successes and continuing challenges for engineering gender parity in Jordan, Malaysia and the US (Abu-Lail et al, 2012). Charles and Bradley’s (2009) study of gender segregation across fields in 44 countries documented counterintuitive patterns of cross-national variation and suggested that cultural beliefs about gender and the meaning and purpose of educational and work activities contribute to greater sex segregation in STEM fields in countries characterized by broad-based material security.

Utilizing Charles and Bradley’s Gender-Essentialist and Self-Expressive Value Systems Framework, quantitative and qualitative data from Jordan, Malaysia, and the US, three countries with different economic profiles, was analyzed (US ranks 8th out of 182 in GDP, Malaysia 59th, and Jordan 109th). Until the 2012 publication, this framework had not been used in engineering education literature, nor had the counter-intuitive findings of cross-national patterns been directly tested.

Our preliminary analysis both confirmed and contradicted Charles and Bradley’s findings and interpretation in important and interesting ways. In Jordan in 2009-2010, women comprised 40% of undergraduate engineering students in the two largest public universities and represented 30.9% of all registered engineers. In Malaysia in 2009, women comprised 40% of entering engineering undergraduates of two of the largest universities, yet represented only 20% of the engineering workforce. This quantitative data are generally consistent with Charles and Bradley’s findings (Abu-Lail et al, 2012).

In many economically developing countries, according to Charles and Bradley, women’s educational and occupational choices are influenced by pressures to provide financial assistance to their families. While the 2012 analysis found this to be generally true in Jordan, it did not seem to hold in Malaysia. Women frequently cited their interest in engineering and its intellectual challenges as rationales for career choice. We suspected that Malaysia’s greater economic prosperity might account for the greater centrality of self-expressive motivations reported by Malaysian women than Jordanian women. Interestingly, self-expressive choices did not appear to promote gender segregation in Malaysia (Abu-Lail et al, 2012).

For our presentation at the GRM, we will summarize our prior and future work, then catalyze discussion around Saudi Arabia, the GCC country represented in our study.
Saudi has notably higher GDP than many other GCC and MENA countries, experiences near parity in youth literacy rate, and has slightly higher female tertiary enrollment (UIS, 2011). However, the seeming educational gender parity doesn’t translate into labor force equality; only 1.4% of STEM researchers are women, and female unemployment hovered around 36% in 2012 (Jiffry, 2013). Women continue to be under-enrolled in technical and vocational education, where jobs are reportedly undersupplied (Calvert & Al-Shetaiwi, 2002).

Our collaborators in Saudi have developed a set of context-specific research questions related to Computing, which has enjoyed strong female participation. (We will include Saudi’s first female engineering program, opened in 2011, in the second phase of our study when its first cohort has graduated.)

1. To what extent does 'workplace segregation' (as structured by Saudi law and societal expectations) affect women’s employment opportunities for computing and IT graduates?
2. To what extent do familial obligations contribute to choosing computing or IT as educational pathways?
3. To what extent will the rapid development and advancement in Saudi Arabia in areas such as engineering, computing, medicine and law affect the occupations available to women and ensuing social implications?

After discussing the Saudi context, we will invite the audience to assist us in generating context-specific questions for other GCC countries, to include in the second phase of our research.