‘On the shoulders of the women’ – gendered perspectives on research in Jordan and Egypt
Reflections from Sahar Imam, Rania Abu Ramadan, Joanne Rowland and Alzhraa Alkhatib and Iain Stewart.
This article draws on a virtual focus group discussion on gender equality between female researchers from Egypt and Jordan. The conversation looked deep beyond the surface on what issues cause gender inequality in the middle east. Is it cultural, institutional, or sectoral? It aims to provide a perspective from Middle Eastern women in science, who share their reflections on practices of gender equality (or the lack of) in the research and science fields.
If we want to look at a positive angle for women access to STEM fields, it is worth looking at the Middle East. In Jordan more than 60% of STEM students are female. In Egypt, STEM graduates are made up of 48% female shrinking to 39% of those who received a doctorate.
The Newton Fund has a prominent presence in the Middle East through its funding streams in Jordan and Egypt, the Newton Khalidi Fund and Newton Mosharafa Fund respectively.
Dr Rania Abu Ramadan, assistant professor in Architectural Engineering at Jordan’s Applied Sciences University and Newton Khalidi researcher, knows that gender issues are deep-seated, often related to civil liberties, maybe freedom of dress or freedom of movement, and navigating them requires both expertise and experience. As a researcher who works amongst Syrian refugees in the camps of northern Jordan, Dr Rania sees the everyday reality of pervasive and enduring gender inequality. "Just 10 days ago I was trying to interview with someone but she refused to make an interview with me because she is afraid."
It is a problem very familiar to Dr Sahar Imam, professor of Urban Design in the department of Architectural Engineering at Cairo University, Egypt and Newton Mosharafa researcher, who works on research problems related to heritage and preserving character of historical areas. In her work, she sees both sides of the gender divide. "As a woman, I’m allowed to walk more freely around the people and they let the women researchers actually do surveys within their houses or their shops. They can communicate easily with the women in the context that we are surveying. She doesn't represent a danger. She can go inside the house. But it's not always this way. Sometimes she's harassed and they stop her from doing her job because they are scared of the research topic."
For Sahar and Rania, it is essential to have both genders involved in their research teams, with men and women working together depending on the situation and the research needs. Whereas female researchers tend to better access domestic areas, male researchers tend to better interact with builders and contractors.
But beyond the field context of the local research environment, neither see gender as a dominating issue within the research team itself. Both Rania and Sahar are clear: when choosing their researchers they don’t think about gender, they think about skills. Student researchers are selected, first and foremost, on the basis of their grades and the capabilities they offer the project. Nevertheless, given the social pressures they are likely to encounter in the field, young female researchers are expected to have an especially strong personality and sense of leadership. The result is a feeling that they always have to work harder to prove themselves, overcoming more obstacles compared to their male colleagues.
One of the suggested solutions to overcome the obstacles is to introduce curriculum changes that provide practical ways to involve young girls in research activities however, that needs inspiring role models. Thus, it is encouraging that more senior women researchers to lead academic departments.
Nevertheless, challenges remain. Dr Joanne Rowland, a senior lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and co-leader of the Newton-Mosharafa-funded ‘Earliest Egypt’ research project, laments the continuation of outdated practices that still sees many women not paid the same as men and not invited onto research teams because of assumptions that they will have to take on certain ‘home’ roles. And amid a culture and tribal traditions in which many women do take on the bulk of familial duties and responsibilities, Rowland argues that means "we have to think about how to be inclusive of women (or men) who have caring responsibilities that may impact on their involvement during ‘normal’ hours and how we can counteract this – what other opportunities could we help to create."
Professor Iain Stewart argued that universities need to avoid a cosmetic checklist approach to equality, ensuring a healthy work-home balance may require recourse to broader policies and laws.
Despite the family-friendly policies in the Egyptian public sector such as the parental leave, it’s very different story in the private sector where young female academics are discouraged to continue their research careers in industry. For that reason, in both Egypt and Jordan what is needed is a wider culture of active empowerment according to Dr. Alzhraa Alkhatib, a lecturer and consultant of Hepatology at the National Liver Institute, Menofia University.
“Opening up opportunities for the next generation of women scientists will rely mainly on better understanding of themselves and their power, alongside the support of the scientific and social communities, to give them a chance to use their amazing scientific potentials and enjoy both life and science at same time.”
The article was curated by Professor Iain Stewart is head of El Hassan Research Chair in Sustainability at the Royal Scientific Society, a Newton-Khalidi Fund Programme in Jordan, and Professor of Geoscience Communication at University of Plymouth