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Regional networks help female scientists, but two flops show it is hard to set them up, reports Rehab Abd Almohsen.
In September 2003, the Cairo office of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) organised a meeting to discuss establishing a network of professional Arab women in science and technology.
As a result, the creation of the Arab Network of Women in Science and Technology (ANWST) in Bahrain, was announced during a meeting at the country's Arabian Gulf University in 2005.
In 2010, ANWST transferred its secretariat to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a library and cultural centre in Egypt. And a year later, the library organised the 2nd Women in Science Conference in collaboration with the network.
Since then, however, nothing seems to have happened, and the network has been silent on any steps it may have been taking to enhance Arab women's role in science and technology.
The ANWST website, for example, is virtually empty of content. Attempts by SciDev.Net to contact the network's office in Alexandria by telephone and email went unanswered.
Rokhsana Ismail, a chemistry professor at Aden University in Yemen, expresses frustration that regional networks for female scientists have failed to deliver on their promises.
This is despite more Arab women than men now enrolling for and completing science degrees. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women received 73 per cent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in science in 2010.
Ismail is a former vice-president for the Arab region of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and is also the founder of Yemeni Women Association for Science and Technology Development, the OWSD's Yemeni branch.
She suggests that forming national branches of regional networks, and then making sure that they are run properly, is an essential step towards effective cooperation between women scientists on the issues they face.
ANWST was intended to foster young women's participation in science and technology. It aimed to do this by strengthening collaboration among women scientists through providing training, workshops, seminars, round-tables and fellowships, and by establishing effective channels for communication and information sharing.
Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University in the United States and a member of ANWST's board of directors, agrees that the network needs more life injected into it.
Despite verbal support for the network at the 2003 meeting in Cairo, backing for the network once it was operational was meagre and short term, he says. "After its headquarters moved to Bahrain, very little was done in the next four years due to budget constraints and lack of leadership," he explains.
El-Baz says that societies for female Arab scientists and engineers are needed to encourage women to venture into science and technology. Most scientific organisations, for example, have few female members.
But he says that the lack of support for ANWST has left it too weak to change the situation.
It has been a similar story with another regional network for female scientists, the Arab Women Network for Research and Development, which was set up by the Arab Science and Technology Foundation in 2008.
But the network has never organised any activities and now it and its website have vanished, leaving little information behind.
After multiple attempts by SciDev.Net to contact Ghada Amer, one of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation's vice-presidents, she gave a brief comment on the network's situation.
"As long as such networks are moderated by volunteers and not full-time employees they will not function well," she said.
She said that one of the reasons behind the network's disappearance is the recent situation in the Arab spring countries and some funding problems. "Most of the researchers were busy with what was going on in their countries and had stopped reacting to online discussions," she added.
According to Amer, the foundation is working to revive the network during its next conference, which will be held in Septemper 2013 in Khartoum, Sudan.
Pointers for success
Nagwa Abdel Meguid, professor of human genetics at the National Research Center in Egypt and a member of both of the inoperative networks, is disappointed that neither is now functioning.
"Networks need to work like organisations and to have a well-chosen coordinator to activate them and work on achieving specific tasks," she says.
Meguid believes that setting up a number of small networks, each specialising in no more than a few related scientific fields, may be a better way to enhance communication between female researchers.
As an example, she points to the online Bioethics Network on Women's Issues in the Arab Region that UNESCO's Cairo office set up in 2010 to discuss ethical issues around women's health and welfare.
This is one of the region's few successful networks, seeking solutions from ethical perspectives for the problems that women face related to healthcare and research.
Orio Ikebe, the network secretary— and officer for human and social science in UNESCO's Cairo office — says the key to its success are the "many active members who are willing to contribute".
The network makes good use of electronic communication. For example, members share useful information through the network's blog.
"This is a new and unique approach in this region," says Ikebe. "Many experts want to contribute to this network using their expertise to make changes to the lives of suffering women."
Others agree that forming a local or national network is a good way to mobilise female scientists and encourage them to work together.
“Most of the time, scientists fear the potential theft of their research ideas, and this often hinders cooperative arrangements.”
Ebtesam Al-Olayan, assistant director of the zoology department of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, is a member of a local network of female scientists from various disciplines called Future Scientist.
"This network has helped me get in touch with a number of female scientists who work in my field, communicating with them through a smartphone app," she says.
Female Saudi scientists can use the network to discuss mutual difficulties and possible research collaborations "to prove that women can find a scientific solution for their communities' problems".
But Al-Olayan says that such networks must overcome mutual wariness. "Most of the time, scientists fear the potential theft of their research ideas by another researcher, and this often hinders cooperative arrangements," she says.
Bodies such as the OWSD can help to strengthen national and international research ties. One of its focuses is to form and support national branches, such as those in Egypt and Yemen.
The organisation brings together female scientists from the developing and developed worlds, with the objective of bolstering their role in development and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership.
Fang Xin, the OWSD's president, says that hosting a strong national branch can help to boost a nation's research as well as international links.
"Certainly, if we have active, energised national chapters, that can make OWSD stronger as an international organisation," she says.
Fang points out that, in many Arab countries, there are accomplished female researchers, women helping to run universities and women in prominent government posts.
"We must hope that the countries in the region see the value of international networks and devote energy to helping to build them," she says.
Fang adds that the Arab region, like many other developing regions, lacks a strong tradition among its researchers — male or female — of working across borders and building regional ties.
"This is not something that will change overnight and it is not something that one organisation or one policy will change," she says. "But if there is a network that is positive, energetic and creative, and if it is having an impact, others will be attracted to that organisation and add to its reach and its vitality."
Both Fang and Ismail agree on the importance of having male members in female science networks in the Arab region — something that is relatively unusual in other parts of the world.
"Men and women need to work together on major research questions and they should be able to work together constructively on gender issues that shape the effectiveness of science and engineering," Fang says.
“If Arab countries wish to catch up with the rest of the world, they must make use of the ability and ingenuity of all their people.”
She cites the OWSD as an example. "We have more than 4,000 members, out of which more than 500 are men," she says. The men and women work together to convey to political and educational leaders the idea that we need the best science and engineering minds available, both men and women, Fang says.
The same point is made by El-Baz, who says that, since men outnumber women in the workforce in the Arab world and tend to hold most of the influential positions in science in this region, they need to be included in this discussion to help boost women's role in society.
"If Arab countries wish to catch up with the rest of the world, they must make use of the ability and ingenuity of all their people — not just half of the population," he says.
"Supporting women in science, engineering and technology is therefore a prerequisite of proper and sustainable development."
Fatima Qafud, head of clinical services at medical research institute Qatar Biobank, and a member of the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry for researchers involved in cell measurement, says it is more important for female scientists to be part of networks based on specialist areas rather than on gender issues.
"A women-only network does not add any real value," she says. "The true value of a science network is determined by the number of participants involved and their level of experience, rather than whether it is gender specific."
But others, such as Ismail, still argue that it is useful to create women-only networks to redress the imbalance between male and female researchers.
"Those networks should be directed toward filling the gap between men and women, helping women to stay on the career track and persuading more women to become scientists," she says.
Ismail suggests that one reason for the slow progress in establishing networks for female scientists may be because the region's current political instability is keeping policymakers occupied with broader political issues.
But she argues that these must not be allowed to distract attention from other important topics, such as promoting women's role in science and breathing life into the networks set up to achieve this.
"Choosing some passionate young female scientists to work on reviving the networks would definitely make a difference," she says.