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Haifa Al Kaylani: Region Is Closing Gender Gaps in STEM Education, but not Jobs

Haifa Al Kaylani, president and founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum, says the Arab world is getting “very close to gender equality” in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in terms of enrolment and opportunity to advance, but she called for more initiatives to bridge the gap between industry and academia.

Haifa Al Kaylani spoke to Al-Fanar Media during the QS Higher Ed Summit: Middle East and Africa, held in Dubai earlier this month, where she moderated a panel discussion on “Bridging the Industry Academia Gap.”

Following are highlights of that interview.

Al-Fanar Media: In your opening remarks at the ‘Bridging the Industry-Academia Gap’ panel, you said that although we have exceptionally high levels of education in the region, we also have high levels of unemployment, especially among young women. How far away do you think we are from gender equality in the science and technology fields?

Haifa Al Kaylani: We are very close to achieving gender equality in the sense of men and women enjoying equal opportunities to progress into senior leadership in STEM especially. The MENA region’s universities often report majority-female cohorts, and we are seeing more women than men graduating from courses such as law and STEM.

However, we also see that this is not necessarily translating into higher numbers of women participating in STEM jobs. Women need to be encouraged not only to have excellent education— this is happening—but they need to put that education to good use serving their families, serving their communities and their economy.

“We want to see more training and apprenticeship provided by the private sector through industry to university students, and we need to see students taking that interest, being encouraged by their universities.”

I would say the region is moving rapidly towards a gender-neutral workplace policy. All the signs are that we are moving in the right direction, and making it possible for women to progress into senior leadership positions in the workforce by levelling the playing field and ensuring that women have the opportunity to balance a successful senior career with a home and family life.

When we started the Arab International Women’s Forum, we were talking about windows of opportunity opening up for Arab women. Twenty-one years on, we see doors open for women in the region to enter all sectors politically, socially, and economically, thanks to the investment in education.

Do you think that aligning academic research to local industry needs will help tackle unemployment in the region, especially among women?

We talked about the mismatch between what the universities are producing and what the job market needs.

There are other deep-rooted structural issues related to societal and gender-related bias, but yes, aligning university research to industry needs is the best route to tackling unemployment in the region more widely, in that Arab graduates will leave our universities fully equipped and ready with a world-class education to conduct the role to the same standard as an international graduate.

University research can also help to pinpoint which courses are in high demand (in the labour market), and which are likely to become obsolete. Universities can make training and resource decisions based on this data, investing in the education and career progression for the very best academics who will be able to train the next generation of leaders in the field.

… We are seeing now outstanding role models of women in cabinet positions, private sector positions, and civil society roles. The more of such role models we see, the more women are encouraged to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to grab that degree and make a difference with it, to my community and my society.’

What do you think are the barriers to universities aligning their educational outcomes with industry needs?

There is a significant lack of home-grown research and data in the Arab world, in the Arabic language. Without this data, we are relying on guesswork and anecdotes to guide universities in their mission to align educational outcomes with the needs of industry. Research is the key to unlocking the region’s full productivity, and to improving industry-academia links for now and in the future.

Also, I’d like to see more technology hubs and innovation labs, sponsored by the private sector, across the region. We need also to see more jobs fairs. We want to see more training and apprenticeship provided by the private sector through industry to university students, and we need to see students taking that interest, being encouraged by their universities.

How do you view the current relationship between industry and academia within the region?

“We need to invest in people’s capabilities, men’s and women’s. We need to teach digital skills. We also cannot forget the soft skills, … which are very important skills to remain relevant in the future job market.”

This is still a very new relationship for the region, but one that in my view is vital to producing workforce-ready graduates. Universities have much to learn from industry, and closer cooperation with industry can inform curriculum design to ensure that the courses Arab students are undertaking are in subjects where there is certain to be need in the future. The relationship between industry and academia must stay dynamic, flexible and reciprocal–both have so much to learn from one another.

There is also much to be said for ensuring that lecturers have some industry experience, to avoid a situation where those teaching highly technical courses have no practical experience of working within the industry itself.

How can industry-university partnerships help fund research that’s more relevant to their societies?

Let some of the industry leaders sit on the board of the university. It could be some of your alumni. All universities have brilliant alumni in the region. Many of them are leaders in the private sector. Put them on your board. This way they will know what you’re doing. They will be engaged in helping the policy, not only shift its position to become more job-readiness friendly, but also they would be more encouraged to put some funding into research in general, and also into research that they require for that particular industry.

The panel discussion also focused on innovation. How can industry and academia work together to support innovation-enabling ‎environments at higher-education institutions?

Through the funding and implementation of apprenticeship programmes, the establishment of entrepreneurship incubators, and graduate training and recruitment arrangements, which are not widely done in the region but which are immensely popular in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. Additionally, industry partners can be pivotal to supporting university students with career advice, whether informally through careers fairs or more formally through certificated training programmes, networking opportunities and other opportunities offered to graduates for advancing their professional development before graduation.

Any final thoughts?

I want to add one thing in terms of inclusion. We know that inclusion challenges in education and employment have long existed and of course we are aware that they have been accentuated by the pandemic. These challenges can be best addressed by putting people first, by humanising education and humanising the workforce. We can do this by creating equality of opportunity for all and adopting a human-centred agenda.

We need to invest in people’s capabilities, men’s and women’s. We need to teach digital skills.

We also cannot forget the soft skills, such as critical thinking, active listening, and problem solving, which are very important skills to remain relevant in the future job market.

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