Women in STEM in Palestine and Finland– current situation, challenges and opportunities for more equality in the future 

OLIVE project and the pedagogical cafe organized a panel discussion on the topical issue : Women in STEM – current situation, challenges and opportunities for more equality in the future. The discussion took place online on Tuesday 31 January 2023.

The panelists discussed the current situation as a global phenomenon with a focus on Finland and Palestine as two cases. Another aim of the discussion was to point out the need to take action for more equality in the future; to possibly identify necessary structural changes; to map out an action plan; to offer policy recommendations; and, to offer the basis for future events and frameworks for further collaboration.

Ali Abuzaid, Professor of Statistics in the Department of Mathematics, Al-Azhar University Gaza, Palestine, opened the discussion introducing the reality of Palestinian women in the labor market. Ali, among others, focused on the challenges and dilemmas of distorted and dependent labor, the availability of job opportunities and the social stereotypes that constrain women’s role in STEM-related fields.

Montaser Al-Halabi, Director of Practicum in the Department of Education, Al-Azhar University Gaza, discussed major governmental initiatives in Palestine. Insights from these experiences reveal challenges such as societal prejudices and expectations, shortage of mentors, low levels of confidence. These indicate that more efforts are needed from both the public and the private sector to promote, for example, women’s use of technology, for more equal opportunities in the future.

Kirsi Ikonen, Project coordinator at the Faculty of Science and Forestry, Department of Physics and Mathematics in the University of Eastern Finland discussed socio-cultural factors that contribute to adolescents’ gendered education. In Finland, occupational gender segregation is a persistent phenomenon. Segregation levels are high and stable especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which are strongly male dominated.

For a future with more equality, Kirsi points out the need for educational interventions that promote not only parent-adolescent communication, but the need for dialogue between families, schools and STEM employers as well.

Professor Wafaa Khater, the Dean of the Faculty of Science in Birzeit University in the West Bank, discussed the role of Women in Physics.

As Wafaa explained, most Palestinian universities offer programs that lead to Master’s degree in Physics, where again female students outnumber their male colleagues. Only, few of them continue to the PhD level and beyond,due to cultural and socio-economic reasons. Most of Palestinian universities do not offer PhD programs in Physics, which means that female students need to study outside Palestine and overcome any barriers that might get imposed on them because of cultural and socio-economic restrictions. At the academic staff level, the percentage of female academic staff members who hold PhD in Physics do not exceed 30% at its best. It is important to promote the role of women in physics and show examples of well-established women physicists to be role models for female students. This will contribute to capacity building among young generations of female physicists. It is also important to learn from other societies that share similar challenges.

For more equal opportunities in the future, Wafaa suggests that: More ‘role models’ are needed for the young Palestinian women in Physics as well as more success stories! Community outreach and engagement at school level, family support, women friendly environment in the academia and research to see more well-established women in science and STEM-related fields.

Wrapping up the discussion, Hille Janhonen-Abruquah, Professor in the University of Eastern Finland and leader of OLIVE project, suggested that for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon it may be relevant to, for instance, disaggregate data on the basis of multiple factors. Adopting an intersectional approach could also help toward this direction. Some more measurements would include: to systematically address the phenomenon by seeking opportunities to promote gender equality; to assess both impacts and implications; and, to include gender equality in policy dialogues and agendas.