Egypt’s Leaky Pipeline of Women in STEM: Study From the British Council

May 19, 2021
By: Nada Salem

Ever since 1928, when the first 13 women were allowed to join Cairo University, Egypt has made immense progress in gender issues. But women’s presence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) can be traced back even further. Historical records tell us the stories of at least 100 women pioneering in STEM at the time of the pharaohs. The contribution of women has always been essential to Egypt’s technological and economic development.

Gone are the days when parents discouraged their daughters from being scientifically curious. Women now account for 52% of STEM undergraduate students at public and private universities across the country. 

However, the labour market tells a different story. 

A 2017 survey found that women only represented 35% of scientific professionals. Despite achieving academic milestones, Egyptian women still face obstacles that prevent them from thriving in their careers. So why is there such a big gap between the number of female STEM students versus female STEM professionals? What happens when female scientists graduate, and why do so many of them disappear? The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” describes a flaw in the system that leads to women disappearing from STEM over the course of their careers–a common trend around the world.

Earlier this month, the British Council hosted a roundtable to discuss a recent study that investigated why a gap exists between academia and the labour market. UK researcher, Joyce Armstrong, collaborated with Mariam Mecky, an Egyptian researcher at the Arab Council for Social Sciences, to delve deeper into what makes STEM careers so challenging for women to both attain and maintain. Women shared their stories, hopes and aspirations for their future in STEM.

The mystery of the leaky pipeline often comes from structural stereotypes. Participants interviewed in the study said that they needed to go above and beyond, putting in many more hours than their male counterparts, in order to be considered for the same positions. The expectations imposed on women are unfairly high. Unspoken gender biases in scientific institutions make promotions harder to come by, significantly hindering professional growth. In rural areas, unequal access to opportunities is another contributor to even higher gender disparity in STEM fields.

Participants felt that policies to encourage inclusive workplaces and support women in STEM need to be better implemented. They asked for more professional development opportunities to help level the playing field. By training people in effective science communication and creating programs that visibly promote female scientists, we can begin to challenge people’s perceptions of women in STEM. Visible role models are important motivators for young girls to feel confident enough to rise to the challenge and continue down the path of the women that came before them. 

Dr Irene Samy and Dr Nour El Gendy were invited to the British Council’s roundtable to talk about their own experiences as female leaders in STEM. Dr Irene Samy is an Associate Engineering Professor at Nile University. She talked about the tough journey from academic research to establishing herself in the manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Dr Nour El Gendy, the Vice Coordinator at the National Council for Women, discussed breaking barriers in the male monopoly of environmental and petroleum fieldwork. Male-dominated fieldwork, especially in petroleum engineering, is a major deterrent for women pursuing related careers. Campaigning and encouraging strong familial support will allow more Egyptian women to engage in the scientific labour market.  This research study was pivotal in analytically examining the current trends, unpacking the multiple barriers that face women in the scientific community, and outlining strategies and opportunities for change. You can read the complete case study on the British Council of Egypt’s website here

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