As a high school student in Saudi Arabia, Reem Khojah’s dream was to study software engineering at the King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals. “Most of the alumni from KFUPM end up in high-ranking engineering and administrative position jobs, and I want to be successful like them. Unfortunately, at that time, there was no engineering school for women,” says Khojah, now a joint postdoc at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Stanford University.
There are very few engineering programs for women, resulting in a shortage of homegrown women engineers to train the next generation of students in Saudi’s gender-segregated education system, in which students are taught by teachers of the same sex. Despite having a strong passion for engineering, Khojah eventually settled for doing a degree in Medical Applied Science at the King Abdulaziz University.
Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia have had limited educational choices especially at the university level, but the “government now provides tuition-free education at all levels,” says Maryam Sani, an education consultant in Saudi Arabia. As a result, between 1996 and 2006, the number of women seeking a bachelor’s degree (inclusive of all disciplines) more than tripled in the kingdom, and women currently represent 58 percent of the total number of university students in Saudi Arabia. Sani also notes that much progress has been made since 2005 to open specific fields such as engineering that used to be reserved for men to Saudi women.
To meet the increasing demand from women in newly available programs such as engineering, in recent years, universities in Saudi Arabia have been opening research and teaching positions to women. For instance, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) recently posted a job advertisement encouraging applications from women. KAUST, launched in 2009, was the first co-ed university in Saudi Arabia, but Sani notes that in most public universities, education is still sex-segregated. The King Faisal University is also hiring women faculty in its biomedical engineering department, which is chaired by a woman professor, according to its department list. KAUST and King Faisal University declined The Scientist’s requests for interviews about their hiring policies.
Due to a lack of engineering education for women in Saudi Arabia, there is an insufficient number of women academics in this field to fill expanding STEM departments. This has motivated universities to turn overseas to recruit women professors to the kingdom. To do so, Sani says, universities offer generous remuneration packages with travel allowances and furnished accommodations.
Ken Kempner, a professor at Southern Oregon University who studies the contributions of women faculty to Saudi society, says that while the job benefits at Saudi Arabia’s universities are excellent, they may not be enough to attract women from overseas to relocate. “I think the main concern is still limited freedom of women. In my opinion, it is difficult to change the mindset of the larger society to accept and employ well-educated women. Although there are recent improvements attributing to brave Saudi women speaking up for cultural change and acceptance, changes may not be fast or large enough in a closed society like Saudi Arabia,” he says.
Only since 2015 have women been allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia, and only in 2017 were women first allowed access to government services such as education without consent from their male guardians. Despite these changes, the kingdom continues to rank poorly for gender parity. The 2020 Global Gender Gap Report placed Saudi Arabia at 146 out of 153 countries.
Malak Abedalthagafi, the deputy director of the General Directorate for Research and Innovation at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, says otherwise. “The reality in Saudi Arabia for women is very different from the story that [foreign] media is telling,” says Abedalthagafi, who in 2018 wrote an article in Nature describing negative stereotypes foreigners have about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She points to what she sees as laudable progress in Saudi Arabia in recent years, such as increasing women’s literacy rate and launching initiatives such as Saudi Vision 2030 to improve women’s education, workforce participation, and leadership positions in society and universities. Abedalthagafi, for instance, is one of many women who was funded by the King Abdullah scholarship to gain overseas work experiences before returning to Saudi Arabia to develop her career.
Peiying Hong, an associate professor at KAUST in the field of Environmental Science and Engineering who is originally from Singapore, says that she initially had reservations about applying for a faculty position in Saudi Arabia. “I had not visited Saudi Arabia before and was influenced by how the foreign media has portrayed it to be. I relayed my concerns to the search committee, and they offered me a no-obligation visit to KAUST. It was not difficult to convince me during the visit of the tremendous opportunities and immense support KAUST has for junior researchers,” she says. Hong says a merit-based funding model that provides competitive grants based on scholars’ proposals and excellent research facilities at KAUST have helped prepare many junior researchers to launch successful careers regardless of their gender.
“I feel fortunate that women’s rights have improved significantly over the past few years,” says Khojah. She recalls that during her undergraduate studies, her commute from her parents’ house to her school took about three hours one way by bus. Now, women can drive and commute alone to another city for work. “With all these positive social changes and exciting research opportunities in Saudi Arabia, I look forward to seeing more contributions by Saudi women in STEM,” Khojah writes in an email.
Andy Tay is a freelance science writer based in Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com.