Catalytic Connections

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  26 Jan 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5811, pp. 437
DOI: 10.1126/science.1140004

We all know that at conferences, the real exchange of ideas happens during the breaks and meals. Through informal communications, we discover common bonds and passions on which we build future collaboration. The International Conference of Women Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering in Kuwait this month, which brought together Arab scientists and engineers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with U.S. women holding similar positions, was an effort to spark such connections. Against the backdrop of the present political climate, charged with concerns about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and economic vulnerability, I was thrilled to see business cards being swapped at an astonishing rate. The richness and sincerity of these interactions provided tangible evidence of the catalytic effect that women could have on the region.

The conference was organized by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the Arab Fund for Economics and Social Development, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science), and the U.S. Department of State, under the auspices of the prime minister of Kuwait. A central purpose of the meeting was to foster leadership skills by creating networks among female scientists in the region and between those scientists and U.S. women. As Yasmin A. Almubarak Altwaijri, an epidemiologist from Saudi Arabia, wrote, “Our mere presence together there, created a dialogue that will lay down the foundations for future collaborations.”


Clearly, a vibrant community of women scientists is emerging in the region. At the conference, many Arab women met regional counterparts for the first time. As personal stories were shared, generalizations quickly vanished. Some of the attendees were internationally known, whereas others had traveled outside their home country for the first time; some were avant-garde, others traditional; many had children before pursuing their degrees; some had returned home hoping to make a difference after years abroad, while others had found opportunities in their own countries. Yet all remained focused on making a contribution through their work even when societal norms presented obstacles. Confident and articulate, these women understand that socioeconomic development of the region depends on global capacity-building and strategic investment in science and technology.

Before the meeting, my own image of Arab women was of an oppressed and marginalized group. Yet statistics presented during the meeting by Samira Islam painted a more nuanced picture. Drawing from a 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report, she noted that 74% of science graduates in Bahrain are women, as compared to 43% in the United States. Unfortunately, this positive indicator is offset by the World Bank Group GenderStats data for 2004, which point out that women make up only 19% of the total labor force in Bahrain, while they account for 46% in the United States. The World Bank sector brief Gender in MENA focuses on this paradox and notes that “unlike in other regions of the world, significant progress in reducing gender gaps in education and in lowering fertility rates has not carried through into MENA's labor market.” These observations were borne out by some of the attendees for whom a science education is a reality, but full participation in the work force is still elusive. As the 2006 InterAcademy Council report Women for Science stated, “global capacity building … is impossible without full engagement of women at the grassroots.” Hopefully, this conference will signal to the region that the time for full engagement is now.

In stepping out of my own comfort zone to attend the conference, I carried some unease. I was not eager to fly over Baghdad and felt a limited knowledge about the Arab world. My daily world as an editor provides intellectual stimulation and, I thought, a sufficient level of engagement. But the eyes of a Yemeni woman—all that I could see of her—showed me that there is more to encounter, and her gaze spoke volumes: a shared thirst for knowledge, professional achievement, and the chance to make a difference. On the meeting's last day, she spoke of her gratitude for the conference and of how it had liberated her. Her eyes, her presence, had equally liberated me and, no doubt, others.

Navigate This Article