Women are driving change in the Middle East tech industry

Bahia El-Sharkawy and Eman El-Koshairy, image courtesy of Middle East Exchange

With more females operating in tech per capita than anywhere else in the world, a new wave of talented individuals are revolutionising the region’s young tech industry, May El Habachi writes.

Women in the Middle East have finally found a place to assert their influence. According to Wamda's calculations, the share of women digital entrepreneurs now comprise 35 per cent in the region compared to only 10 per cent worldwide. The digital world seems to be more meritocratic and allows women more freedom and flexibility than regular office jobs. In conservative countries like the Middle East, where the cultural expectation of women still focuses on domestic roles and duties, technology gives women the opportunity to work from anywhere, anytime.

But not all women choose to work in technology for these reasons. Many choose it to pursue their passion and make a difference.

MAKING A CHANGE

After having spent more than 10 years in IT, Iman Ben Chaibah decided to leave her job to start her own company, Sail Publishing, a digital publishing house in the UAE for online magazines and ebooks.

“Starting an online magazine was something that I always wanted to do,” says Ben Chaibah. “It was on the back of my mind when I was working so I decided that I just needed to do it.”

An avid reader and writer, Ben Chaibah created Sail to give the UAE a voice. Sail content is developed by Emirati writers and covers a wide range of topics including education, self-help, self-improvement, traveling and much more. In a world dominated by fashion and lifestyle content, it definitely stands out.

“It would not have been possible for me to do what I’m doing without technology,” explains Ben Chaibah. “My business is digital based and we rely completely on technology. Going digital also breaks down geographical barriers and helps us reduce our running costs.”   

Other female tech entrepreneurs, Eman El-Koshairy and Bahia El Sharkawy from Egypt, decided on a business idea by encountering a problem then trying to find ways to solve it. As software engineers, they struggled to find other software engineers at the companies they used to work. This made them realise that there was a talent gap in the market, one that they intended to fill.

Soon Al Makinah was born. A boot camp school that teaches students programming skills, Al Makinah has so far trained over 100 students-men and women alike- and plans on expanding its services to offer beginner and advanced programming courses.

“Our goal is to empower Egyptian youth through technology,” say Al Makinah founders. “By teaching programming and the basics of computational thinking from an early age, we make sure that today’s youth is better equipped for the world they live in.”

OVERCOMING THE GENDER DIVIDE

Still, being a female digital entrepreneur can be tough.

With the industry being more male-dominated, Ben Chaibah has had to fight a little harder to find sponsors and investors for her company. This comes as no surprise, since according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), female led startups receive 23 per cent less money than male-led firms.

“A lot of times, those who decide whom to fund are men,” says Ben Chaibah. “They are therefore more likely to select other men, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Ben Chaibah believes that women need to counter this.

“If you believe that because you’re a woman you can’t enter the industry, this sets you back. You have to come in with your self-confidence.”

Al Makinah also believe that self-confidence plays a key role in women’s success in the industry. When teaching programming, they noticed a difference in attitude between men and women and how confidence affects their overall learning.

“Women tend to self-doubt and blame themselves when not getting things right,” explain Al Makinah’s founders. “We addressed that by giving them support and encouraging a growth mindset.

“It is amazing to see how a change in attitude can affect performance. What determines a good techie is not gender, but technical skills, which can be acquired through hard work, and of course having the right attitude.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Regardless of these setbacks, female-led tech startups will only continue to grow. With the ability to use the internet, reach new markets through online platforms and work from anywhere, women will continue to leverage digital technology to pursue their careers and businesses.

As economist Saadia Zahidi states in her book, Fifty Million Rising, digital platforms allow women to challenge familial and social conventions as well as give them economic power, which could be transformative for region.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” says Ben Chaibah. “I think this trend will continue to evolve. I see girls entering university and pursuing tech so I’m really hopeful about what the next generation will bring.”

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