Women and Math

Rafia Zakaria:

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE drill is well known: every time the results of some sort of worldwide survey are released, women in the Muslim world are towards the bottom. Afghan women usually occupy the lowest rungs of political participation, women in Somalia and Sudan have the lowest access to healthcare facilities, women in Iraq and Syria are forced into marriages at astoundingly young ages, and Pakistani women along with Egyptian women experience high levels of domestic violence and general misogyny.

Years of these sorts of surveys, products of complexities reduced to variables and relationship to regression, have taught those who read them to approach with caution, a degree of warranted criticism, a degree of preparedness for the disappointments to follow.

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to encounter a study that upended all others. In her book titled Fifty Million Rising, social scientist Saadia Zahidi found that women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields than their counterparts in other nations. The percentages are impressive: in Iran, 70 per cent of university graduates in STEM fields are women; in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, 60pc of graduates are women, and over 40pc of science graduates in Algeria are women. According to Zahidi, the reason for the advance is that many of these Muslim countries have invested heavily in improving women’s access and education in these fields.

It’s not that they do not encounter gender stereotypes or the sort of constraints that come from being a woman in conservative and male-dominated societies, it is that women are genuinely ambitious and want to excel. In some countries, like the UAE and Jordan, girls actually expressed greater confidence in their math skills than boys at the same age and grade level. In contrast to these percentages, only 18pc of all computer science degrees at American universities are awarded to women. At the high school level, only 27pc of those who sit for the Advanced Placement Computer Science Exam are female.

Women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in STEM fields than their counterparts in other nations.