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With the dire economic crisis and public schools on strike for weeks now, STEM education will become alarmingly more inaccessible to a wider portion of young girls.

My journey in the field of technology began in Lebanon, an extremely interesting and perplexing landscape for women in STEM in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While Lebanon still lags on matters of gender equality, ranking 119 out of 146 countries on the 2022 Gender Gap Index, it is the third best-performing country in MENA. Globally, men outperform women in math, yet girls and boys in Lebanon perform equally as well in secondary school math. Lebanon also has relatively fluctuating performance and participation rates for women in STEM. Moreover, the average enrollment across Lebanese universities for women in sciences was around 54 percent in 2018, although only 25 percent for women studying engineering.  

Pursuing STEM fields can increase the likelihood of achieving financial autonomy and upward social mobility for women. However, university engineering cohorts across  Lebanon, including mine, have witnessed a “trickling out of STEM” phenomenon: women obtain higher education degrees in STEM but transition into more socially acceptable, non-STEM careers, such as education services. 

In 2017, I was one of two female sophomores in a software engineering lab of more than fifteen students at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. That experience encouraged me to co-found All Girls Code (AGC), an initiative that runs free, tech-immersive programs for young girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds. AGC’s aim is to nurture girls’ interests in STEM, starting at ages as young as 12. We believed that this approach will ignite their curiosity about STEM and consequently motivate them to seriously pursue these fields in the future.  

We established a comprehensive technology curriculum, complemented by consistent support, encouragement, and leadership training from the AGC team. We launched an annual technology summer program, held year-round sessions on tech culture and jargon, and introduced an internship program for high school and university students. Finally, we sustained mentoring relationships with our alumni, covering topics ranging from university majors to dealing with microaggressions. Six years later, AGC counts more than 700 alumni, with many returning as volunteers and directors. Others have expanded the AGC ripple effect with new initiatives in their communities. During the pandemic, we also welcomed participants virtually from other MENA countries, including Egypt and the UAE.  

On average, more than 80 percent of our annual cohorts study STEM at university. We’re now navigating conversations with our alumni on how to pursue careers in STEM; many of our learnings from their experiences and journeys are worth sharing. First, early hands-on exposure to technology instilled an incredible sense of confidence among our alumni in skills they needed for fresh graduate roles. Second, girls benefited tremendously from our complementary training on navigating complex decisions and ethical considerations. Most importantly, our socioeconomically inclusive community of young girls, including refugees and low-income students, served to diversify the initiatives and projects that our members launched after joining AGC. This exemplifies the importance of equitable access to STEM opportunities, particularly in the context of Lebanon’s current, unprecedented economic crisis

Despite this noteworthy progress facilitated by AGC, there are several remaining challenges that hinder the path forward for women in STEM and the efforts to support them in Lebanon. Initiatives such as AGC can only do so much in the absence of governmental support. With the dire economic crisis and public schools on strike for weeks now, STEM education will become alarmingly more inaccessible to a wider portion of young girls. Moreover, there are no serious incentives for private companies to seek more female candidates, and consequently, to invest in outreach programs to prepare and source talent. Finally, sociocultural norms and expectations still hold women back from pursuing demanding STEM careers. 

I am deeply concerned about the growing gender inequality in Lebanon with the further deterioration of the economy. However, the stellar efforts that AGC alumni have paid forward to younger girls provide me with a budding glimpse of hope for the next generation of women leading STEM in Lebanon and the MENA region, despite the challenges that lie ahead. 

About the Author

Aya Mouallem

Aya Mouallem

PhD Candidate, Knight-Hennessy Scholar, & RAISE Doctoral Fellow, Stanford University
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