I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Conference of Women Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering, in Kuwait, January 8-10. The conference was hosted under the patronage of Kuwaiti Prime Minister H.H. Shaykh Naser Mohammad Al-Sabah, and co-hosted by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences. AAAS was the U.S. co-sponsor and the US State Department was a major organizer of the event. Women scientists from 20 Middle Eastern and Northern African countries participated with women and men from the US. I could talk at length about the top quality speakers and the interesting breakout sessions, but like most of the conferences I attend, the best activity happened around the open networking time.
Shortly after returning to the US, one of the organizers called me and asked if this was not one of the highlights of my life. Certainly it cannot compare to the many wonderful personal highlights of my life (25 year marriage, 3 wonderful girls, terrific parents and in-laws) but it was certainly one of the better meetings I have attended. What made it great, however, was not the speakers or the materials (which were very good), but the attendees themselves. Both the American women and the Arab women were excited at the opportunity to meet and get to know each other. There was a wonderful openness and sharing of cultures and ideas, and an acceptance that we have more in common as women than differences due to nationalities. The challenges women face in science, engineering, mathematics, and IT (STEM) vary by degree only. One woman from Kuwait shared her concerns about having only 40 computers in a university of 4,000 women. How can this happen in such a wealthy country? How often have we asked ourselves similar questions about the United States?
Some Arab women wore burkas, others wore scarves around their heads, and others were free of head coverings, but what they wore was not an indication of a woman’s country of origin. Women in Lebanon give three kisses for a greeting on alternate cheeks. Women in Egypt give two. The Americans were curious about the food and the Arab women patiently explained everything. “How many kids do you have?” “How do you balance work and family?” “How can you get promoted through the glass ceiling?” There were no egos, just an openness to talk about shared experiences in the US and the Mid-East region. Many of the non-U.S. women held U.S. degrees.
Participant Mary Anne Fox, President, University of California San Diego, and I shared time with several others on the final panel entitled “Next Steps.” In answer to a question she talked about one of the reasons for our participating being the promotion world peace. Can it be so simple? Sitting down, getting to know each other and sharing ideas? Was promoting women in STEM fields equivalent to promoting world peace?
As I was driving in the van to the airport to return to the United States after the meeting, one of the U.S. State Department representatives got a call. The Iraqi delegation would be arriving in Kuwait in three hours. I thought about the lives of these women and how disappointed they must be to have missed the meeting. But I was also deeply disappointed to have missed them. Was this shared longing to meet and get to know each other part of the quiet process for peace?
Perhaps my colleague who helped organize the event also understood something that has yet to be fully revealed to me – that looking back I will see this event as a highlight, not for my life alone, but for the lives of all women in STEM in our interconnected regions of the world.
Claudia Morrell is executive Director for the Center for Women and Information Technology (CWIT) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is pictured above, third from the right, with other attendees of the Kuwait conference.