What It Takes for Arab Women to Succeed in Technology

Alexis Baghdadi, Jul 30 2015

The Lebanon chapter of Arab Women in Computing (ArabWIC) held its inaugural event yesterday at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The conference hosted a panel of 4 professionals in technology or related fields: Fatima Abu Salem (Professor at AUB), Rana El Chemaitelly (Founder of The Little Engineer), Reina Nader (Head of PMO at Alfa), and Racha Ghamlouch (Speaker and Entrepreneur Relations Manager at ArabNet).

Women: A Largely Underrepresented Demographic

Women in technology are little known, both regionally and internationally. In the MENA, women in general have to deal with the additional pressure of conservative societies and gender roles when they enter the professional world. But the knowledge economy presents interesting possibilities for them to challenge these roles and stand out among their peers.

Aggregated figures for the region are hard to come by, but it is still widely thought that technology is a field reserved for men – even globally speaking. This misconception is due only to the fact that women in the workplace are still not adequately supported, nor fully integrated in some cases.

If ArabNet’s events can serve as a representative sample, women made up only a small portion of total industry professionals in the past 5 years. For example, only 17% of all speakers since 2010 were female. But the numbers are rising, in ArabNet’s past 3 events, women made up a larger share of total attendees: 40% in Beirut (March 2015); 20% in Riyadh (November 2014); and 26% in Dubai (June 2014).

 Since 2010, 21% of entrepreneurs pitching ideas for competitions were female, however 26% of the winners were female. In 2011, all 3 winners of the Startup Demo Competition in Cairo were female.

How Women Can Integrate the Technology Sector

The panelists at the event shared their experiences and dispensed advice to young women considering a career in the knowledge economy. According to them, technology in the MENA is still a nascent sector, and this presents an attractive window for women to play a more active role in it.

1. Put women in the spotlight

The number of women professionals in leading positions is limited in general. Part of this is due to the fact that women are not generally as assertive as men – and when they do, they are often derogatorily labelled “bossy”.

When Chemaitelly started the Little Engineer, she felt she needed a male business partner for “credibility” when approaching policymakers and industry leaders in the region. “This was my worst mistake, and I’m glad it’s over,” she said. After she let her partner go, she closed a deal worth more than the compounded value of all deal she closed with him over the previous 4 years – minus the aggravation.

“We need to teach women to market themselves better and not be afraid of jumping in,” said Ghamlouch.

“There is such a thing as a ‘promotion clock’,” said Abu Salem, “for women in the workplace, this clock coincides with their ‘biological clock’. Unlike men who still have an additional 10-15 years ahead of them, women need to work harder and faster to earn a promotion – and being shy doesn’t help.”

2. Build capacity and buff up academia

Technology is advancing faster than academia can keep up. By the time Nader graduated, she said most of what she had learned in university was obsolete. “There is a rising trend to keep talents out of college and integrate them in the marketplace early on,” said Ghamlouch.

Abu Salem urged young women to continuously work on developing themselves outside university, and diversify their skillsets. Nader’s advice was: “Learn something new, or take a course about a subject you are not familiar with, you never know when it will come in handy.”

Of course, we are not yet at the point where a university degree is no longer required. Still, the academic landscape in the region is particularly undersupplied in terms of teachers and resources. Abu Salem urged technology students to pursue higher education abroad, where proper research and development exists, before they start a career in the MENA. “And of course,” she added, “you can always consider teaching.”

3. Challenge stereotypes

Challenging stereotypical gender roles is a constant struggle for women worldwide, and for female professionals in particular.

The status of women is evolving, though. Even in more conservative societies, women are becoming more integrated in the workplace. The Princess Noura University in Riyadh, for example, (the world’s largest women’s university), is part of a state program to give women access to state-of-the-art education and find employment opportunities for them.

Change is also happening on the micro level. The reasons behind evolving mindsets include greater awareness, but also better educational programs and facilities to empower children at a younger age. Finally, economic constraints have also played a part in driving women to seek employment.

“Traditional family structures have evolved, and stay-at-home moms are no longer the norm,” said Chemaitelly, “this has made it easier for women to pursue careers and travel.”

See related: The Struggle of Arab Women to Join the Workforce - and How Some Found Their Way In

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