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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Dubai - Women were celebrated and recognised for their invaluable work at a “Women in Space” conference during the Dubai Airshow 2019.
Hosted by the UAE Space Agency, the event saw experts and decision makers in the global space sector discuss the importance of diversity, capacity building and the use of advanced technologies in the space industry.
Mohammed al-Ahbabi, director general of the agency, said women have a vital role to play in the development of the space sector. More than 45% of the United Arab Emirates’ space agency is made up of women. “Many of them are in the core technical side, young engineers working on the Mars mission and other satellites, so it is worth talking about,” he said.
“The UAE looks to empower women on a national level and to ensure a gender balance. We have an indicator at the agency where the percentage of women is measured every year so we are competing with other governmental organisations to ensure we are empowering women — not just by numbers but by giving them a leading role in the core business.”
While women are underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field around the world, the United Arab Emirates has tried to ensure their role has grown across the industry.
“It is not just in the agency but also in the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and the space sector as a whole, women are well represented and they have demonstrated their capabilities,” Ahbabi said. “It is one of our strengths in the United Arab Emirates, especially in the space sector.”
He spoke of NASA where female representation is quite low — around 14% while the UAE space sector is 30-35%.
“We are proud of the women in space,” Ahbabi said. “Not just for global indicators but our leadership believes women are half of the society and if we can empower them, then they will contribute greatly.”
Emirati women’s ambitions are far-reaching — when applications opened for submissions to the UAE Astronaut Programme, 4,000 Emiratis applied, of which 34% were women.
“So you are talking about young women thinking of going to space and many went far in the interview process,” Ahbabi explained. “It’s a great indicator of their strength.”
Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, mentioned innumerable contributions and dedicated efforts of women in the field of space.
“Today, women are making history and it is truly inspiring to see how far they’ve come,” he said. “We, at MBRSC, have always been keen on empowering women by involving them in all the key divisions and sectors.”
At the centre, 42% of the staff members are women. The Emirates Mars Mission — Hope Probe — core science team consists of 80% female staff. “We believe that women are active partners who contribute to MBRSC’s achievements and success,” Marri said.
“MBRSC is proud to be a major player in empowering women in space and positioning the UAE at the forefront of leading countries in this field. This is guided by the vision of our leadership, who has empowered Emirati women in every field, including education, legislation, environment, technology and research and development, among others.”
Ahbabi said he expects that number to grow as the United Arab Emirates continues to lead the region in space. “There is, unfortunately, a challenge in the UAE to get enough skilled men for high-tech sectors so women can fill that gap,” he said. “Certain sectors require more men because of the nature of the work.”
MeznSat, a satellite scheduled for launch this year, has a number of females involved in design and manufacturing. It is designed to gather environmental data, which will contribute to achieving sustainability.
The agency has added Iraq, Tunisia and Mauritania to its now 14-member Arab Space Coordination Group. Another three countries are expected to join as the United Arab Emirates is funding and building Satellite 813, a platform on which Arab scientists and engineers will be able to work together.
As the importance of STEM education and raising younger generations’ awareness about the space industry was highlighted at the conference, enriching and investing in local talent for developing space-related capabilities was also emphasised.
The United Arab Emirates is engaging with universities to create space programmes, as well as providing students with the opportunities to study niche programmes abroad to prepare them to become industry pioneers.
The country aims to establish a link between education and space, as Hazza al-Mansoori, the first Emirati astronaut, was continuously in touch with young Emirati students during his trip to the International Space Station to raise awareness of the space sector and inspire them to follow his journey.
As a culmination to the United Arab Emirates’ efforts, the International Astronautical Congress 2020 will be in Dubai next October, a first for the Arab region.
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