Annual Review of Sociology, in 2000 , defined volunteering as “any activity in which time is given freely to benefit another person, group or cause”. The verb ‘volunteer’ seems to be first appearing in early 17th century, in french military context ‘voluntaire’; “one who offers himself to military service”, not necessarily working for free though .
Volunteering is a kind of alturism(1) appreciated and endorsed by every community and applied based on the values and culture of the people practicing it. It creatively finds a way to match needs and capabilities and empowers selflessness over selfishness.
In the Arab community, volunteering is practiced in many aspects, elderly support, violence and drug consumption awareness, sexual harassment prevention, women rights, basic education, human rights and more. In addition, Arab engagement into the Hitech and Biotech industry is a topic that has been attracting attention of social entrepreneurs, NGOs, volunteers and stakeholders since years, aiming at increasing the number of Arab students and eventually employees in engineering fields like computer science and electrical engineering and opening industrial parks closer to Arab cities and villages.
Being an Arab woman may make the deal more challenging; three barriers to overcome – ourselves, the Arab society and traditions and the fact of being a minority.
In a 2017 report published by Taub Center on “Education and Employment among Young Arabs” , percentage of Arab females who are eligible for high school diploma (Bagrut, in hebrew), in 2013, that allows them to pursue higher education in universities, varies between 28-61% (vs. 60% for Jewish non-orthodox (JNO) females), depending mainly on religion, but also on location of residency. Among them, 71-85% (vs. 39% among JNO) are specializing in science and engineering fields at schools.
Now, let’s look at what happens next!
A higher education entrance exam, referred to as “The Psychometric Entrance Test”, shortly PET, which is a tool for predicting academic performance, for screening applicants for the various faculties to pursue higher education specially at universities. For which, usually, engineering, medicine and science fields require high scores. Only 54-78% of Arab females are taking PET vs. 89% for JNO females. Scoring is slightly higher for JNO females than Arab females, 561 vs. up to 516, respectively. Both are still lower than a typical acceptance criteria for science and engineering fields. English, being a third language, is found to be an obstacle refraining Arabs (in general) from scoring high in PET, while mathematics (the quantitative part) is the part they excel in the most.
Relatively low scoring in PET may explain the low rate of Arab students at universities. This challenge is supposedly to be addressed by pre-university preparation programs, however, the rate of Arab students registering to such programs was found to be sparse, as the report claims. As a workaround, many Arab students decide to study abroad. In 2013, 25% of Arab students were studying abroad, with a majority of males. We may relate this trend to social pressure: 1. ‘we need to start higher studies as soon as possible, preferably immediately after school’ and 2. women are restricted by social barriers, refraining them to pursue studies they want abroad, which leaves them no option but to study something else; more ‘suitable for women’.
The rate of Arab female students (age 18-27) at higher education varies between 6.8-21.9% vs. 20.7 for JNO females, same ages. With those numbers, only 8-13% of Arab females study science or engineering in comparison to 16% of JNO females. Majority of Arab females chose education and social sciences as their field of studies, in comparison to only 20% among JNO females. Arab females with high PET scores, would have more preferences to healthcare studies, e.g. medicine.
In 2016, Globes  summarized the number of females in advanced studies in science and engineering are 36% in master studies and 46% in doctorate studies, however, only 14% of academic staff. The percentage of Arab females in those studies is significantly lower than JNOs.
Optimistically, those numbers are and will be increasing with time, this increase can be related to programs and activities focusing on exposing females in general and Arab females specifically to engineering and science fields and sharing with them success stories.
We, the team of Arab Women in Science and Engineering (AWSc) forum, decided to take part in this journey. Today, we celebrate our 6th anniversary, concluding 2193 days of a wonderful journey full of passion, great energies and pride. We do all what we do because we care, and above all, because this is all about us, Arab females, and about our future. We want to be part of the change we want to see. In AWSc, we perceive this challenge as a voluntary opportunity: there is a need we partner together to address, a gap we work hard to fill, and half a society we wish to cherish and raise.
Sharing with you today AWSc little secrets for 6 years of non-stop acts and impacts! Sharing with you the blessings and the challenges, the spirits and the purity, the professionalism and innovation; all blooming out of this forum and its volunteering seeds.
Initiation & Uniqueness (2014-2016)
It all started on April 17th 2014, when we met to discuss the sparse presence of Arab women in advanced professional positions, and the efforts should be invested to increase it .And since, “if we are not for ourselves, who is for us? And if not now, when?” The forum of Arab Women in Science and Engineering (AWSc) was established.
AWSc joins together postgraduate Arab women in the fields of sciences and engineering, aiming to support women’s professional career pathways in academia as well as in industry.
Aim for uniqueness
Establishing such a journey, requires clear definition and planning. For that purpose, Shatil has been for us a wonderful reference on how to define ourselves and become unique in what we address and who we target. As Simon Sinek brilliantly explained in his book “Start with Why”, about the essence of driving all your plans and actions, your ‘What’ and ‘How’, by your ‘Why’. Working together with Orwa Switat, a former consultant at Shatil, we managed to filter out our thoughts and focus our aim by shaping a ‘Why’ that we believe in into a unique vision first, that translates our beliefs into a set of missions.
Our crystal clear ‘Why’ has always been “to break through barriers for women and girls”. In AWSc, we are committed to provide women with the proper tools to help them break down barriers and achieve success and self-fulfillment, through invaluable leadership, innovation and commitment to their sector, and encouraging self-employment and entrepreneurship, providing role models for the next generation.
AWSc works on multiple axes. It promotes advanced degrees among undergraduate students, raises awareness to the setbacks that women encounter during and after studies, strives to achieve equal opportunities in academy and industry, exposes women to the entrepreneurship world and supplies them with tools to bring their own ideas to fruition and explore ways of operationalizing the term “empowerment”. AWSc will also reach Arab females in high-schools to encourage them to engage with the world of science and engineering.
Inspired by our ‘Why’ and driven by our vision, we aim to achieve the following:
Build a network between AWSc women and related associations and public and private institutes through conferences and seminars
Exchange experiences in promoting the empowerment of women through formal and non-formal enriching activities
Give professional orientation for advanced degrees in sciences and engineering in Israel and abroad through workshops
Give professional orientation in high schools by a series of lectures
It took us almost one year to launch our first event. Our first topic was Women in Entrepreneurship. Planning was not easy, with the support of Prof. Yosef Jabareen from the Technion, we managed to solve the logistic challenges, and with the teamwork efforts (we started with 7 female members), we managed to plan and execute a fruitful content. Over 100 female participants attended the event. It was such a successful kickoff, after which we only looked up, aiming at rising and growing.
Moving forward, different programs were defined, plans were in place, maybe not perfectly structured, but we were learning and improving, all the time. We Lunched our facebook page, created our email account, and the rest is history.
Our flagship projects are:
Let`s Talk Science, a stage to share scientific knowledge, innovation and cutting edge research, mostly run by females
Think Science, a program for schools, to expose female students to scientific fields through hands-on experiments and true stories from female role models.
Workshops, short courses offered for female alumni to provide tools that strengthen their soft skills, creativity and innovation.
We always made sure that each single meetup is introducing a topic that brings value to all participants. We kindly challenged our speakers, carefully selected our location, sometimes we failed, but many more we succeeded. Today, people know us, and trust our content. This trust gives our team confidence, and makes us stronger every time, this is one of our little secrets that we empower the most. We were featured in both Arabic and Hebrew media. It was hard for challenges to beat us, for us the sky is the limit. We managed to work through obstacles, we built confidence within our team, and attracted the same spirits among our extended network.
Sustainability and Growth (2017-2019)
We never had an office, we still do not have one, all members work most of the time remotely, from home, after work, early Fridays, late Saturdays, and in any free time we have. AWSc turned to be our new spiritual yoga. We managed to reinvent energies for it, we learned how loving what you do can find its own time slots in your busy schedule. Priorities and structured work were key points in AWSc culture, and this is also another little secret: we have rules which we follow. Rules that serve our ‘why’, and make sure we do not deviate from the ultimate goal.
We are strong believers in partnership. We partner to seek higher levels, join efforts to strengthen our impact, collaborate to trigger the change we want to see, each working in its own way and leaving its own footprints. We collaborate with many associations, institutions, companies and NGOs, among them: Microsoft, Tsofen, Brain Engine, Alpha Omega, StarVision and Technion.
Our collaboration with Microsoft, managed by Jumana Nseir-Hakim, enabled us to launch Tech It Forward, which addresses many soft skill topics through hands-on workshop sessions held by experts in each domain. Our Think Science was expanded to reach more schools, mainly focusing on the periphery, through joint collaboration with Tsofen. With the Technion, we launched Academy Oriented workshops, to expose first degree students to research opportunities, MSc and PhD studies. As part of a collaboration with Starvision and Hiyatech, we launched a product management course for Hightech and Biotech engineers. With Alpha Omega, and the support of Reem Younis, we held a focused course on Neuroengineering.
Sponsorships and funding are crucial aspects of sustainability and growth. Many of our events would not have been successful without the financial aid of our collaborators and funders. In 2017, following a long and interesting grant application process, With And For Girls collective has awarded us funding to support activities focusing on young girls. The award enabled us to innovate and enrich our portfolio. Thanks to this award, and in collaboration with Brain Engine, we launched Arduino Camp program for young girls, ages 15-17, in which girls learned principles of Arduino programming, worked on their own project, built their own prototype and presented their final product during the completion ceremony. The girls were also enriched by soft skills as well as sessions with female role models.
Individual meetups were also supported by The Arab Culture Association, The Galilee Society, Mossawa Center, Intel, US Embassy and British Embassy. In addition, academic associations in each Arab city or village were always great partners, making sure the impact reaches all potential participants, overcoming accessibility challenges faced by many women in the periphery.
Aristotel once said “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.”, doing good makes people happy and satisfied. Satisfaction and happiness magically inspires others to act and join. By doing good we attract people like us. AWSc growth needs womenpower, volunteers who believe our ‘why’, and help achieve our missions. Finding those believers has always been the shiny smile that is put on the faces of AWSc founders, making them heartwarmly grateful for this grace. Seeing the forum growing, and the spirits spreading, you learn to know that we (half of the society) are already in a better place. We lean in to finetune AWSc`s structure and make space for more footprints to drive the ship with innovative approaches, one more little secret we add to our list. The annual AWSc management elections is a precious time in the year, through which we look back, reflect on the successful approaches, and forward project our conclusions into the following year. Lessons are learned and failures are translated into building blocks used to improve our strategy and update our plans.
We always make sure that every volunteer gains the benefits out of this volunteering. We learn from each other, support each other, enrich one the other, we make sure every experience is shaping our personalities and getting the best version out of us, so we are able to raise new role models, and then, repeat. Exactly as implied by our circle of inspiration, another little secret that makes the foundation of how we work. Today, we are a family of 32 female members (2), colleagues and friends, all together working for a sole target: breaking through barriers by and for women and girls. Reminding ourselves with our ‘why’ is another secret we tend to rely on for driving our decisions and plans.
Figure of our circle of inspiration
Continue and innovate (2020 and on)
2020 is a hope for further growth, new chapters are opened, ideas are drawn and plans are ready for execution. Unfortunately, the breakthrough of COVID-19 has ceased the entire world from acting normally. To adapt to quarantine restrictions, we decided to hold some of our activities online, enabling us to continue our mission in serving our ‘why’. This decision was straightforwardly taken in agreement by all members, everyone excited to take part in implementing our plans online. We will strongly continue with our journey to support the immediate needs of our target audience. We may pivot our focus to topics related to the current situation. Recently we focused our meetings on ways to work from home efficiently, impact of COVID-19 and quarantine restrictions on energy and environment, and updates on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Leaning in is another secret through which we never stop doing what we love to do.
The past 6 years have been a wonderful journey, giving us strength and power to continue learning on how we can join efforts to build a community of women paving their career pathways in the fields of science and engineering, seeking leading positions in academia and industry, and becoming role models attracting the next generation of female girls. With that, we are also building a society that offers equal opportunities to women, enabling them to become whoever they wish to, growing side by side with their male colleagues.
It has been exciting to write the conclusion of 6 years of endless energies and beautiful wafts. We still have a lot to learn and apply. Looking forward to additional 6 years fruitful years.
A tiny funny fact on why we have chosen to celebrate our 6th anniversary and not the 5th. 6 is the only even perfect number that is not the sum of successive odd cubes. For those who do not remember, a perfect number is a number that is equal to its aliquot sum (which is the sum of its positive divisors, excluding the number itself). It is also the only number that is both the sum and the product of three consecutive positive numbers . We just like science!
We reached the end of this essay. No other perfect ending than a quote from the legendary writer Gibran Khalil Gibran “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Keep giving!
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AWSc | Arab Women in Science and Engineering Ⓒ2020
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(1)Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual