Building Support Networks for the Advancement of Women in STEM in Africa and the Middle East
In a world where women are slowly increasing their presence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, there is a need for more equity and advancement in the workplace, and more leadership opportunities.
These are two of the main reasons 42 exchange program alumni from the United States and 23 countries across the Middle East and Africa gathered in October 2023 for “Alumni TIES Cairo: Women’s Leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).” These exchange alumni represented 19 U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, hailing from careers in medicine, public health, technology, engineering, information technology, architecture, aviation, planetary sciences, environmental science, biology, biostatistics, and education.
The three-day seminar served as a problem-solving platform addressing the viability, inclusivity, and prosperity for women of all kinds in STEM. During the first two sessions, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs Ruben Harutunian, from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Rafik Mansour, from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, lauded the contributions of women to the sciences, and the talent and grit they possess to better their fields. Minister Counselor Harutunian highlighted that, out of thousands of Egyptians expressing interest in this seminar, only three were selected. The three Egyptian participants stood up and were met with roaring applause. Continuing with this praise, women from other countries were asked to stand up as their backgrounds were highlighted. This provided the larger group with the opportunity to see who was in the room, from serial entrepreneurs to activists, doctors, and professors.
After the welcome remarks, the participants were able to ask questions focused on creating space at the top for women in STEM fields. Participants asked questions such as, “How can more women get into top leadership positions?” and “How can men be allies?” These questions were met with advice, difficult truths, and even more questions pushing participants to think about how they use their own experiences and resources to address these issues. As a group, the participants and speakers discussed women having higher standards for other women in the workplace and undervaluing their skills in the job applications. The resulting advice included deciding to apply for a leadership job even if you do not perfectly fit the description of the ideal candidate. In addition, the importance of female hiring managers who could serve as mentors and create more accessibility to leadership positions was another highlighted solution.
The seminar continued with guest and participant panels, small group discussion corners, the Global Communities Showcase, meetings with local organizations, a trip to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, and culminated with a STEM Ideas on Stage! (a project pitch competition).
Participants connected with guest speakers Aisha Bowe, CEO of STEM Board; Aziza El Kolei, Field Director at World Learning Algeria; and Mohamed Abdelaziz, STEAM Center Director at World Learning Saudia Arabia. Mohamed and Aziza’s presentations intertwined the stories of intergenerational robotics learners and a ‘student success story’ — Haoua Seghouani, who started as a student at the STEAM center, became an online tutor, and completed multiple projects, including a robotics workshop for young students in her region through the U.S. Department of State’s TechGirls and TechWomen exchange programs. Haoua’s story is a testament of a girl’s power to utilize global programs and support networks to create needed opportunities for aspiring women and girls in her field.
Aisha Bowe spoke about multiple pathways to success, along with the importance of valuing your mission and yourself. Aisha, who is a serial entrepreneur and an exchange alumna of the U.S. Department of State’s Speakers Program, and an astronaut-in-training, revealed that she graduated from high school with less than a 3.0 GPA. Despite her low-grade point average, Aisha was able to work her way from a community college to a four-year university, where she received a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and later a job at NASA. As an entrepreneur, Aisha advised the participants to accept funding from donors who believe in the entrepreneur’s personal vision. Even though it may be tempting to accept any money that may come their way, it will not help your businesses grow in the ways you dreamed, according to Aisha. Above all, Aisha advocated for believing in yourself and caring for yourself. She discussed her daily meditation and self-empowerment routine that she completes regardless of how she feels.
During the participant-led panel discussion on “Creating Generational Impact through Mentorship and Support Networks,” participants reflected on the roles and boundaries of an educator in students’ lives. In their work, the speakers said they aim to remove obstacles for potential students to access educational opportunities. They also noted the limitations of interfering with students’ home lives and the need to care for themselves in the process.
Through the “Global Communities Showcase” and the meetings with local organizations, participants witnessed the work of STEM organizations in local communities across the Middle East, Africa, and in the United States. The Global Communities Showcase featured the work of over 20 participants and three local Egyptian alumni. Attendees visited three exhibition rooms centered on the themes of STEM education, community engagement, and entrepreneurship. In each room, displays detailed the impact of the organizations. One participant brought “Architecture in a Box” sets that allowed attendees to learn by doing about the main tenets of a career in architecture. Another participant who is authoring a book about women in medicine featured a display highlighting the contributions of the groundbreaking women that she will feature in the book.
The trip to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo gave participants a chance to familiarize themselves with the city of Cairo and the country’s history. At the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, the group went on a guided tour and learned about the rich history of Egypt’s pharaohs, including the tomb and possession of the famed Tutankhamun, one of the country’s youngest-ruling and most short-lived Pharaohs.
The group met with three local organizations, Dayma, Amideast’s STEM Center, and San3a Tech’s Fab Lab Egypt. Through these meetings, the group connected their own work with these institutions. Although each organization shared different presentations, all had the common thread of being a place accessible and beneficial to all Egyptians. This aspirational mission exemplified the inclusivity that group members strived for in their work. Multiple participants reported that they see the businesses models of these organizations as a standard in which to model their future business endeavors.
The seminar culminated with a project pitch competition — STEM Ideas on Stage! This competition was the result of a brainstorming session in which the group was challenged to select a target community and ideate a STEM-based project that would address a problem in this community. Potential projects included a STEM career counseling podcast for students and a mentorship matching service. Participants will use this brainstorming and competition experience as the impetus for Alumni TIES small grant project ideas that they implement in their respective communities.
The seminar ended with dinner at the Minister Counselor for Public Affairs’ residence, and the participants expressed a oneness in their joy and recollection of the seminar’s events. Throughout the seminar, many participants highlighted the importance of “women supporting women,” with the spirit of this theme closing out the night and the event.
Alumni TIES is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by World Learning, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).