Studying Engineering In United Arab Emirates Engineering Essay

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Engineering has traditionally been seen as a male oriented vocational course to study at University. When I studied Civil Engineering in the mid-eighties, there were only 6 female students to 79 males. The American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates was founded in 1997 and now has over 5000 undergraduate students, 46 percent of which are female. Engineering is by far the biggest faculty with 2000 students, and surprisingly, female students now make up 30 percent of engineering courses. This is a poignant figure in a Muslim country where the female role up to very recently has been that of homemaker. It is also interesting that so many students opt to study in English when there are opportunities available to study in Arabic. However, after graduating, many female engineering students fail to take up graduate posts in Engineering and the majority who do, give up work when they marry or have children. Many do not even use English after graduating, preferring to work in an Arabic speaking environment. This begs the question, why are so many female students opting for engineering degrees in English when many will use neither the language nor the subject to any great extent after graduation.

2 Hypothesis

More women in the UAE are choosing to study Engineering in English not for vocational reasons, but to increase their status in a traditionally male dominated society.

3 The United Arab Emirates

3.1 History and geography

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was founded in 1971 and is situated in the north eastern peninsula of the Arabian Gulf, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. The country is made up of seven different emirates, namely Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm am Quwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujeirah. The area has always been an important trading station, but until recently the vast majority of the population lived a Bedouin lifestyle. By the coast, the population relied on fishing and pearl diving for income, and in land on date plantations and camel farms. In 1958 however, huge oil reserves were found in Abu Dhabi which has dramatically transformed the economy. Nowadays, the UAE has one of the highest per capita incomes and is the second richest per capita Arab country after Qatar.

3.2 Population

The population of the UAE is unique in make-up. Although it has a rapidly increasing population which stands at just over 8 million, only 18 percent are nationals. The pie chart shown below gives a breakdown of the UAE population. The majority of immigrant workers are males from sub continent including India, Pakistan and the Philippines and thus the male to female ratio of population is 75:25.

Figure 1.1 Pie Chart to Show UAE Population by Nationality

3.3 UAE culture and gender roles

The UAE has a traditional Muslim society, with clearly defined roles for men and women. Segregation is common in both the home and at school. At home, all male guests are entertained in the majlis, which is a room with a separate entrance so that the women of the house cannot be seen by non- relatives. All local schools from primary through high school are segregated and at tertiary level there are separate Universities and colleges for men and women. Women and men have different areas within mosques to pray. Even weddings are celebrated separately, with different ceremonies for males and female guests.

Family is central to Emirati life and women traditionally stayed at home to bring up children, whilst the men worked. The expectations for girls are fairly well established-to grow up, marry and have children despite many being well educated and well travelled. However, the role of women in the UAE is changing. Illiteracy, which affected up to 85 percent of UAE women at the outset of the federation has fallen to 7.6 percent with female participation at elementary and middle schools equaling that of their male counterparts. In 2009, national women have surpassed UAE men and now account for 70.8 percent of students attending university. The status of women and encouragement to take up employment and play an active role in society was encouraged by the late President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who said, "Nothing could delight me more than to see the woman taking up her distinctive position in society ... Nothing should hinder her progress ... Like men, women deserve the right to occupy high positions according to their capabilities and qualifications." Nevertheless, there are still relatively few Arabic women in high status positions in the UAE, and many women do not continue to work if they marry or have children.

3.4 The American University of Sharjah

The American University of Sharjah (AUS) was founded by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, Ruler of Sharjah, in 1997. It is a coeducational university based on the American system, with over 5000 full time students and over 300 faculty. UAE nationals account for 19 percent of the student population and over 60 percent are Arabic speaking. The figure shown below shows the breakdown by nationality of AUS students.

Figure 1.2 Pie Chart to Show AUS student population by Nationality

Of the four schools, the School of Engineering has the biggest intake with over 2000 students enrolled in five Engineering majors.

Figure 1.3 Graph to Show AUS Enrollment by Subject

At present, female students make up 46.2 percent of the total student population, and the vast majority live on campus in dormitories which are gender segregated. Interestingly, the percentage of female students opting for traditional male dominated subjects such as Engineering has been steadily increasing at AUS and females now account for over 20 percent of engineering students. This mirrors research done in the USA which found that women make up around 23 percent of all engineering graduates (Welde, Laursen and Thiry, 2006)

4 Methodology

4.1 Purpose and method

The project aimed to investigate the reasons why more women are choosing to study engineering in English and to examine students' short and long term career aspirations. Firstly, a survey was developed and a pilot study was performed on a small sample of students. According to Alison Wary et al: "By running a pilot study […] you can identify many problems before you do a major part of the research" The questionnaire was developed to ask questions in a variety of ways, beginning with simple closed questions relating to students background and education. There were some ranking questions, some semantic differential questions based on the Likert scale and finally some open questions requiring more detailed answers. From the pilot study, some of the questions were modified to make the questions and answers less ambiguous. It was also decided to give the survey to male students to act as a comparison, especially in attitudes to status and women's role in society. After completion of the questionnaires, five female students were selected for a more in-depth round table discussion.

4.2 Participants

27 female and 27 male students were selected to complete the questionnaire in class time. The students selected need to have: "compatibility and representativeness" (Alison Wray et al) To be compatible, it is necessary to be able to obtain reliable background information on the respondents, and to be representative, there must be base-line common features between the group. In this survey, all students are third or final year engineering students who will soon be looking for employment. The age range of the participants was 19-24. The entry level TOEFL score is 540 and most students have spent three years already studying in English, so the general level of both spoken and written English is high. All students have English as their second language, and the majority attended school in the UAE. The five female students selected for the round table discussion were chosen for their openness, xxxxxxxxxxxxxx.

4.3 Interpretation of results

The questionnaires were given out towards the end of class and students were given as much time as needed to complete. All the answers from the surveys were then input into Survey Monkey by hand, to allow graphic interpretation and easy collation of the answers. In order to analyze the data effectively, the results were organized into five categories:

General background

The importance of English

Engineering as a high status profession

Family influence

Plans for the future

The role and status of women in society

The round table discussion was conducted in an informal setting, and involved asking open questions to the group as a whole. It was decided that the female students were more likely to be open if they were not taped; consequently, the responses from the students were noted but not recorded.

5 Survey results and discussion

As the hypothesis aims to look at the role of women's attitude to their status in society, the discussion which follows relates to the female responses from the given questionnaires. At the end of this analysis, a comparison with the male responses will be discussed.

5.1 General Background:

From the 27 female students who completed the survey, the points below are major observations regarding the participants' background:

There was a variety of nationalities, with most students originating from the Gulf region including UAE, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. In addition, there were students from Sudan, Iran and the Indian sub-continent.

As expected, the majority of students (85 percent) are native Arabic speakers and all speak a mother tongue other than English at home. Other languages spoken include Farsi, Bengali and Urdu.

The vast majority (89 percent) of students grew up and attended school in the UAE, despite being of differing nationalities. The remainder were schooled in the USA/Iran and Qatar

There were 67 percent of the participants had English as a main language of instruction at high school compared to 48 percent in Arabic. Many students attended bi-lingual schools and hence the results add up to more than 100percent.

The results reflect the multi-cultural make-up of the UAE and the fact many students who are based here are from other nationalities. Interestingly, well over half of the students were educated in an English medium. Crystal (1997) in Talbot et al states, "Whatever criteria we use, the picture is one of a pre-eminent role of English in the international arena and a huge demand for and promotion of access to the language" The students and their parents clearly value the linguistic capital that studying in English can bring.

5.2 The importance of English

There were eight questions which related specifically to the participants' views on the importance of English which are discussed below:

Out of the 27 participants, 75 percent put "Degrees studied in English hold high status" as their top or second top ranking. The least important reason was family influence which 75percent of the participants put as lowest or second lowest choice.

None of the students considered studying in any other medium than English.

Over 80 percent of the students believe that having a degree studied in English will enhance their career prospects and that the degree will be highly regarded.

Over 75 percent believe that English is the main language of business communication in the Middle East.

92 percent stated that they strongly disagree or disagree that people should study in English only if they plan to use it in their careers.

According to Thomas and Wareing (2002), "The poor, disabled, ethnic minorities and women are all groups which may find themselves having lower social status." This could be said to be especially true in the Middle East where women are raised and educated in a male dominated society with traditional attitudes and constraints. In order to improve their social status, women must be seen to be able to communicate effectively. "Power is often demonstrated through language and it is also actually achieved or 'done' through language." (Thomas and Wareing, 2002) Talbot et al state that," Language is not a phenomenon independent or disconnected from society; rather it is itself a 'social institution, deeply implicated in culture, in society in political relations at every level' (Cameron 1997).The majority of UAE citizens realise the importance of English in their society. Firstly, the UAE has a very diverse cross section of cultures, and thus English is vital as a common language. The majority of deals and day to day business correspondence is conducted in English, and English speakers have huge linguistic capital. Consequently, females in the UAE value fluency in English as it not only improves their chances of a getting a good job but also enhances their position in society. In my discussion, most students mentioned English as being a 'global language' and how it 'allows communication with the rest of the world'. Some even said that employers here in the UAE 'expect' good English from graduates. It is interesting that even those who may not use English at work after graduating believe it is important to have fluency in the language. Some female students, particularly UAE nationals, will work in the public sector and will be speaking mainly with other Arabic speakers. However, having a good level of English presumably gives them more confidence and perhaps status in these roles.

5.3 Engineering as a high status profession

Of the eight questions related to Engineering as a high status profession, the following are the major observations:

76 percent of the students ranked 'Engineers have high status' as their number one reason for choosing the course, whilst family influence had the lowest ranking.

Students believe Engineering is the number one career in terms of status in the UAE, outranking doctors, accountants and teachers.

Over 90 percent of students think that having an Engineering degree is highly regarded and holds high status in the Middle East.

For the 70 percent of students who considered degrees in subjects other than Engineering, 80 percent were considering other high status degrees namely medicine, architecture and accountancy.

Only 64 percent of female students strongly agree that women make good engineers and 19 percent were not sure or don't agree.

70 percent of the female students believe that people should study Engineering even if they do NOT plan to use it in their careers.

Article 34 of the UAE constitution states that," Every citizen shall be free to choose his occupation, trade or profession within the limits of the law." Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the subjects chosen by Muslim women with more female students opting for courses in engineering. However, after graduation, many women face cultural restraints or restrictions in potential employment. This would suggest that some women are opting for engineering a s a subject more for the status it holds rather than for the job opportunities and career advancement it brings. Farkhonda Hassan (2000) believes that the failure of many women to enter the work force stems from gender stereotyping. She states, " […]there is self-inhibition among school girls that affects not only the number of young women entering university to study science and technology subjects, but also results in the reluctance of talented women to introduce their own values and visions into a working world dominated by men." Perhaps women feel they must first increase their status in society before being fully integrated into the UAE work force. Women do not have as many engineer role models as for other careers such medicine, accounting or law. There are few women science high school teachers, women in science textbooks and among university engineering faculty, approximately 8 percent are women. One student during our discussion said that she was very narrow minded and only considered engineering and medicine as prestigious fields of study. The fact that so many female students still value and are prepared to study for a degree in engineering even if not planning to use it career- wise would suggest they are breaking the mould and asserting their right to choose to study subjects traditionally chosen by males.

5.4 Family influence

The influence of students' families is discussed in the following section:

96 percent of the students' parents speak some English; most fathers spoke very well or well whilst the majority of mothers were classified as average.

As a profession, 33 percent of fathers were engineers.

14 of the 27 students have working mothers, 9 of whom worked as teachers and one as an engineer.

The mother was the most significant influence on choosing both to study in English (22 percent)

The mother was the most significant influence on choosing both to study engineering (73 percent)

40 percent of the students' families had reservation about the choice of major.

The reservations against females studying English were

Father wanted them to study another subject ( mostly medicine)

The family thought engineering was unsuitable for girls

92 percent said their family and friends were supportive of the choice to study in English.

The survey results brought some interesting observations. Firstly, it would seem that the importance of English is valued by all the family. The family is very supportive of the choice to study in English and both parents speak a reasonable level of English. In Talbot et al, Morrison and Lui (2000) state: "People seek English […] for a variety of reasons; for example, economic and political, to achieve necessary fluency in a world-wide lingua-franca, and thereby survive in a world-wide market and diverse culture. English is not a necessary passport to success but […] it helps." Morisson and Lui's argument relates to Hong Kong; however, it has a lot of parallels with the situation in the UAE. Although parents in the Middle East may still be reluctant to let their daughters study in the USA or UK, they clearly realize that their children are more likely to succeed having a degree studied in English.

It is surprising that although many students had fathers who are engineers, the strongest influence on their degree choice was the mother. This could be cultural, in that most Arabic daughters have a closer relationship with their mother and female relatives. Nevertheless, it could also be that their mothers felt restricted as females, see the opportunity for change, and are keen for their daughters to have a more equal role in society. Farkhonda Hassan (2000) discusses the challenges Arabic women have of combining responsibilities for a household and (usually) extended family with a professional career. She also believes it is very difficult for women to re-enter the workforce in a scientific role once a career has be put on hold to raise a family. This argument is supported by the fact that most of the working mother's in the survey were teachers-a role that would allow women to work and look after a family.

On investigating why women are becoming more educated in our discussion, one student quoted Queen Rania of Jordan as saying, "When you educate a woman, you educate a family". All the students agreed that being educated was an important xxxx to influence their own children.

5.5 Plans for the future

It is important to explore the path that the female students plan to take, both career wise and from a family perspective. The major observations are discussed below:

The majority of students want a job in Engineering or to continue higher studies after graduation.

52 percent of students are not sure or would not be prepared to work in another city to their family after graduation.

45 percent would not continue higher studies in another country.

Many students said they would hope to continue working if they get married, but would stop work if they have children.

Of the female students surveyed, 67 percent hope to get a job as an engineer after graduation. In real terms, this would mean that women engineers would constitute over 15 percent of the total engineering workforce. Although it is difficult to get precise figures, this is not the case in the western world and certainly not in the UAE. This would suggest that many female students opt for posts other than engineering after graduation, or continue to higher studies. Obviously, restrictions on female's geographic mobility limit their career choice and promotion prospects.

In my discussions with the female students, most hope to find a husband who was supportive of their degree choice and carry on working after marriage. One student explained, "If I find a very supportive husband, I might even work after children if we can balance things -I'm trying to be realistic here!" many students talked of compromise and felt husbands nowadays are more likely to consider their wives' wishes in terms of career and family. However, most students said they would give up work when they have a family even if this meant relinquishing their engineering career. On the whole, most students want to raise their own children by choice and only one student felt she would be under pressure from her family to give up work. After discussing the options for women who have taken time out of the workplace, most students agreed that they would return to a job which would allow them to balance a home and work life, for example teaching.

It is difficult to separate the influence of culture on the students' future plans. On the one hand, it would seem that they are encouraged by society and certainly their mothers to pursue engineering and technical degrees. However, the social and cultural norms are still strong and there conflict still exists between a women's traditional role in the home and emerging career aspirations.

5.6 The role and status of women in UAE society

This category has links to all the others, as it influences female opinions. The major points noted are as follows:

82 percent think that women should take up high status positions in the UAE and 72 percent think that women will take up such roles.

A big majority, 85 percent believe women should not give up work when they get married.

50 percent of the students in the questionnaire think that women should not give up work if they have children, and 20 percent agree that they should.

The students think that society is becoming more open-minded and aware of women's needs to be educated and hold positions of power.

It is clear from discussions that the role of females in the UAE is changing. Many students remarked that both men and women work due to lifestyle and financial demands which were not there 30 years ago. There is also a clear influence from the West, with society becoming more 'respectful' of women's needs. One student explained that, "many men here are not reliable anymore and don't always support the family as they did.' This has meant women becoming more independent. The government has many initiatives and promotes better education and opportunities for women. The appointment of Sheikh Lubna Al Qasimi as Minister for Economy and planning in 2004 and subsequent promotion to Minister for foreign trade has xxxxxxxxxx the role of women and subsequently, more women have seats of power in the UAE government.

Many students spoke about challenging the traditional role of women with regard to studies and career choice. One student remarked that she "chose engineering because it would be a challenge to break down stereotypes about Arabic women and challenge men in their 'assumed' field." Another said that she "wanted to prove I can be smart as anyone else including the men in my family" There is also the notion in the UAE that some jobs are inappropriate for women, especially Emirati women. For example, there are practically no hairdressers, waitressing staff or even nurses, all of which are traditional women's roles in other societies.

The students also feel that women are more highly motivated and ambitious in studies and achieve better grades than male students. In my experience at AUS, the female students consistently outperform the males and all female students are within the top 20%. Whether this is to prove themselves to be better than men in a man's world, or for other reasons, remains to be seen.