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Why These Countries?

  • Different constraints and opportunity structures from the USA

  • Each country represents a distinct geographical sector of the Muslim world: the Middle East (Jordan), Southeast Asia (Malaysia), the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (Saudi Arabia), and North Africa (Tunisia).

  • In these countries women’s engineering representation is already notably higher than the US with one exception—Saudi Arabia (computing participation is notably higher, though).

  • These four countries vary substantially in the level of gender equality in their economic, educational, socio-cultural, legal, and political spheres.

What about the US?

  • Individualism:  cultural of individualism (i.e., one that encourages self-expression, being “true” to one’s self).

  • Gender: gender essentialism (women have people and nurturing skills and men possess technical, scientific reasoning-based skills)

  • Educational structure: supports and encourages gendered self-expression

  • Gender-labeling of academic and occupational fields:  Labeling engineering as “masculine” biases women’s and men’s self-assessment of their engineering competence.

  • Economy: Greater gender labeling of curricular fields than countries with weaker economies. Curricular and career choice in less economically developed countries is more influenced by economic and prestige factors.

United States

Women’s engineering participation is crucial given that the shortage of engineers in the US weakens the country’s position as a leader in the global market and restricts the country’s capacity to solve infrastructural challenges. The research is significant because it promises to document factors that encourage women’s successful participation in STEM in social, political, and cultural contexts that are very different from the US. With its cross-national, in-depth exploration of women’s curricular and career choices and its attention to mechanisms producing gender-differentiated curricular and career decisions, this project promises to shed light more generally on how context shapes women’s successful participation in STEM in ways that inform our efforts to broaden participation in the US.

Research team: Washington State UniversityPurdue UniversityWestern Washington University


In three of the four countries identified (Jordan, Malaysia, and Tunisia), women’s participation in engineering is much higher than in the US.

Tunisian policymakers have historically embraced gender equality (Murphey, 2003).  Yet recent studies found that Tunisian engineers indicate that traditional gender perceptions and expectations tied to familial roles did not fit with women’s engineering participation(DeBoer, 2007; Zghal, 2006). The overall educational enrollment figures are approximately equal for women and men in the secondary (89% for boys and 93% for girls, respectively) and tertiary (25% for men and 21% for women) levels (UIS, 2015).  Researchers in STEM fields are nearly half women (UIS, 2015). The overall population female-male literacy gap (71% for women, 87% for men) is smaller among those ages 15-24 where (96% for women, 98% for men, UIS, 2015). Tunisia’s secularism, active civil institutions, and the longstanding involvement of groups like the National Tunisian Women’s Union have improved women’s general employment and their engineering participation. 

Research team: École Nationale d'Ingénieurs de Tunis


In Jordan, the overrepresentation of women in overall tertiary enrollment is a relatively recent phenomenon (43%/37% female/male enrollment; UNESCO Institute for Statistics [UIS], 2015), and it has raised the question of a possible change in the perception of young women’s roles in society (Adely, 2004). Still, less than a quarter of Jordanian STEM researchers are women (UIS, 2015). Although the percentage of female students in specific disciplines such as computer science is lower, it is rising (about 25% in 2009 and 49% in 2011) (Khreisat, 2009). Further, the proportion of women in other STEM disciplines (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics, and math) is as high as 75% (UIS, 2015). 

Research team: Jordan University of Science and Technology

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia experiences near parity in the youth literacy rate and higher overall female tertiary enrollment (46% female vs. 41% male)(UIS, 2015) and the Saudi government now offers one of the world's largest scholarship programs for women (Islam, 2014). However, the seeming gender-parity within the educational system does not translate into equality in the labor force; in STEM, fewer than 2% of researchers are women and overall female employment hovered around 20% in 2013 (compared to 43% among other GCC members) (UIS, 2015; G20 2014 Employment Plan Saudi Arabia).  In 2011, in recognition that high numbers of female university graduates and low female employment is a national issue of underutilized human resources the Saudi Ministry of Labor implemented programs to increase women’s workforce participation (e.g., G20 2014 Employment Plan Saudi Arabia) and the Saudi government and Harvard have recently started to address the technical and societal challenges related to increasing women in the workplace (Searcey, 2014). 

Research team: TBD


Malaysia’s historically British education system has been combined with state efforts at modernization and support of global competitiveness and there nearly half of STEM researchers are women (UIS, 2015). Despite this, executive-level female employees in a Malaysian multinational company indicated that family structure and women’s commitment to family were the most significant barriers to women’s career progression (Ismail & Ibrahim, 2008). These findings corroborate other analyses of Malaysian women in managerial roles and of Malaysian computer scientists, wherein a specific, well-understood construct of female identity had to be reconciled with academic career aspirations to enable success (Lagesen, 2008; Luke, 2002; Mellström, 2009). 

Research Team: Universiti Teknologi Malaysia