January 11, 2018

Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Arab Women in Technology

Woman presents Pepper the Robot in Dubai, Women in Technology
An Emirati woman presents Pepper the robot as part of the Dubai Future Accelerators program in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Globally, computer science and information technology majors in universities are dominated by men. However, in the Middle East, 40 percent of university students specializing in computer science and IT are women. The percentage is even higher in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where women represent 70-80 percent of computer science and IT students compared to 15-20 percent in the United States. Young women in the Middle East majoring in computer science and IT don’t have the perception that it is a man’s field.

The more difficult task is to translate this interest in computer science and IT studies into female entry into the workforce. Although the number of female students in universities in the Gulf Cooperation Council states exceeds the number of male students, the female labor force participation rate remains low (Bahrain 44 percent, Kuwait 47 percent, Qatar 58 percent, Oman 30 percent, Saudi Arabia 22 percent, and the UAE 41 percent). Cultural and social norms in the GCC states generally dictate that women have the role of caregiver, while men are the providers for their families. They also dictate limited interaction between men and women at the workplace. This social framework creates a barrier for women to work that is costly: An International Monetary Fund study suggests that closing the gender gap between men and women in the labor force would increase gross domestic product by 12 percent in the UAE.

Still, with some state support, the potential for technology to reduce this workplace gender gap in the Gulf is promising. Nontraditional employment opportunities created by the rise of entrepreneurship and technology have facilitated innovative work solutions. Women now can have work-life balance by designing their own work schedules or working remotely, minimizing physical interaction with men in the workplace. Many Gulf women have already taken up the challenge, building their own technology startups and online businesses.

Female-Led Technology Startups

Of online Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, 35 percent are women, while the global average is only 10 percent. After working for ten years in investment and financial analysis, and support services, Wafaa Alashwali used her own money to launch Serviis, a platform to connect users with services such as appliance repair, landscaping, cleaning, tutoring, and translation. Iman Ben Chaibah saw a business opportunity by creating a space for Emirati writers. She founded Sail, a monthly online magazine published in English that is entirely Emirati in its content. The self-funded magazine covers topics that interest young Emiratis from culture and society to fashion, art, and sports. The magazine grew into a full publishing house including digital publishing on international platforms such as iBooks and Kindle. Sail has about 50,000 readers per month. Tasneem Salim and Felwa al-Swailem are two young Saudi women who have a passion for video games. In 2011, they founded GCON, an annual convention for women gamers and game developers in Riyadh. GCON provides female game developers with opportunities to land international projects. The convention also encourages young women to seek computing and programming careers.

The Gulf, particularly Dubai, is considered home to many highly skilled Arab migrant workers. Dubai has built the ecosystem to become the technology startup hub of the region, providing opportunities to innovators from all backgrounds. Expatriate Arab women in Dubai have founded a number of the biggest technology startups in the Arab world. These women include Mona Ataya, the founder of  the leading online retailer of kids’ merchandise in the region, Mumzworld, and Ola Doudin, founder of BitOasis, a bitcoin consumer wallet and exchange focused on cash-based emerging markets. Maria Abi Hanna and Nadine Tayara, two dietitians who co-founded Plotos, a wellness platform and healthy food delivery mobile application, chose Dubai for their headquarters as did Ambareen Musa, founder of the financial products comparison site, Souqalmal.com.

The Gulf region has benefitted from a worldwide trend supporting women entrepreneurs in technology. While studies show that women are generally more efficient with capital than men, they currently receive roughly 2 percent of venture capital. To combat this issue, technology companies are encouraging more female entrepreneurs online. For example, Facebook launched the #SheMeansBusiness campaign to train businesswomen in the Middle East and North Africa to leverage their presence on social media platforms and promote their businesses. In addition, Facebook is partnering with the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center and Emirates Foundation in the UAE and Ahead of the Curve in Egypt to train 10,000 women per year in social media promotion. Similarly, Google launched the #40Forward campaign to increase female participation by 25 percent in 40 startup communities. The campaign was designed on the notion that diversity is the key to creating successful companies.

Social Media Women Entrepreneurs

Technology is not only changing the way business is done, but also has a profound impact on consumer behavior and society. Social media platforms have empowered women to start businesses while at home or as side projects while holding full-time jobs. Online businesses are especially appealing for women who live in societies with strict cultural and social norms. Instagram has 63 million users in the Middle East and North Africa, 70 percent of whom follow a business account on the site. Saudi Arabia alone has 11 million social media users, the highest number per capita in the world. It is estimated that, between 2010 and 2014, 806,000 women earned money on Instagram in Saudi Arabia. However, making money on Instagram is not accounted for in employment and labor force participation figures, as this is considered to be part of the informal economy.

Nurturing Gulf Women in Technology

A study done by the International Finance Corporation in the UAE shows that women entrepreneurs tend to be risk averse and finance their businesses mainly through their savings or credit cards, or by reinvesting profits from their businesses, rather than using commercial bank loans. Similar to the UAE, 82.2 percent of registered businesswomen in Saudi Arabia financed their businesses using their personal savings and 12.9 percent took loans from family and friends. Each GCC government has a national fund to support entrepreneurs. However, other than the traditional funding approaches listed, there are no structured provisions when it comes to venture capitalist and angel investors in the GCC states, resulting in diminished protection for both entrepreneurs and investors.

Although there are measures in place to increase women’s participation in the workforce in the GCC states, there is still much work to be done – from career guidance for young women in school to introduce them and their parents to opportunities in entrepreneurship and technology, to providing training after graduation. The most generous maternity leave in GCC countries is 70 days, in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while the paternity leave is only one day. Reviewing the parental leave provisions to include more paternity leave could encourage men to take a greater part in raising their children and eventually change the family dynamics in the GCC states. Perhaps allowing men to get involved in the process, they will feel less threatened by changes in gender dynamics. While child care is facilitated by the availability of domestic help and family, working women could use child care benefits. In addition, GCC labor laws don’t include provisions for part-time jobs and freelancing, which could be worth exploring.

It is important for young women to see strong role models in their communities. Research shows that the role model effect has yielded positive results in inspiring young women. The UAE is promoting a growing number of women in leadership positions in technology. One example is Aisha Bin Bishr, the director general of Smart Dubai, one of the biggest technological initiatives in the country. Bin Bishr started her career in IT and holds a PhD in science, technology, and innovation. Another example is the newly appointed minister of state for advanced sciences, Sara Al Amiri, who is also the deputy project manager and science lead of the Emirates Mars Mission at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. She was selected as one of 50 young scientists by the World Economic Forum for her contribution to development efforts in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. Other role models in the technology field in the GCC states are Hind Bahwan, the founder of Bahwan CyberTek; Eaman Al Roudhan, the CEO of Zain Kuwait; and Muna Al Hashemi, the CEO of Batelco. Women role models in the GCC states should be celebrated to pave the way for the next generation of empowered women in the region.

Thuraiya Alhashmi is a visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.