Arab Women Making Inroads in the Tech Sector

By Pamela Babcock Oct 15, 2014

NEW YORK—Women in the Arab world, and particularly a growing number working in technology, are a largely untapped resource and could play a pivotal role in the region’s future job creation, speakers at the C3 Summit said recently.

While far from a level playing field, progress has been made in the Arab region in recent decades as women have benefitted from expanded opportunities and have become increasingly integrated into society.

“For the last two decades, we have seen women come into their own in the region and make outstanding strides,” Haifa Al Kaylani, an economist and founder and chairman of the Arab International Women’s Forum in London, told attendees Oct. 6, 2014, at the C3 Summit.

The event is a collaboration between the U.S. State and Commerce departments, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to exchange ideas between the U.S. and the Middle East.

Al Kaylani noted that Arab women have increasingly assumed roles as lawyers, doctors, architects and elected officeholders. However, she said, when it comes to participation in the workforce, “we find they are still lagging behind world averages.”

However, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are making inroads in technology and entrepreneurship, said Rahilla Zafar, co-author of Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World (Knowledge@Wharton, 2014). Zafar and co-author Nafeesa Syeed spent two years interviewing 35 female business owners in countries throughout the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

One particular bright spot has been the number of women establishing tech companies in a region where mobile usage is on the upswing, said Zafar. “In computer science departments from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, up to 90 percent of the students are women,” she said.

She noted that young women from conservative families are graduating from computer science departments and are often the first women in their families to move to big cities like Dubai, to work for Google or IBM. Meanwhile, many Arab women with MBAs from top U.S. and European universities who were previously working in cities like London are moving back home to places like Lebanon and Morocco to work for startups.

Zafar said tech incubators in Saudi Arabia now have more female employees than those in New York City or Silicon Valley. And since the majority of people in the Arab world are under 30, Zafar said women “are playing a pivotal role in creating millions of the jobs about to be created.”

More Proof Things Are Changing

Here are some other examples of the influence of women in the region:

  • Women in the Arab region are very active on ArabNet, the hub for digital professionals and entrepreneurs in the Middle East, using the website to connect and learn. Zafar said at events showcasing startups in the region, “nine out of 10 times, it’s a woman-run company” that is blazing new trails.
  • YouTube’s largest viewership is in Saudi Arabia—90 million YouTube videos are watched there each day. “It’s mostly Saudi women watching educational videos,” she said.
  • Facebook is doubling its office space in the Middle East, where Arab women are increasingly creating businesses using online platforms like Facebook and Instagram before turning them into brick-and-mortar storefronts, she said.

Note to Women: Please Apply

Karim Babay, managing partner and chief investment officer of global hedge fund Intrinsic value Investment Partners, said when it comes to women in the workforce, countries in the Middle East typically fall into two buckets, with countries such as Tunisia and Iran having a 40 to 50 percent female workforce participation rate, and places like Libya and Saudi Arabia where female workplace participation is probably less than 15 percent.

Babay said his “gender neutral” company, which has offices around the globe, including in Tripoli, Libya, is comprised of 50 percent women. “The industry average is less than 20 percent,” he noted. He said that he’s seen no data indicating men are superior hedge fund managers compared to women. But when he advertises openings, about one out of 10 applications is from a woman. And he wishes more would apply, whether they’re in the MENA region or elsewhere.

“Everybody else is not necessarily looking to hire men per se, but I think it takes two to tango,” Babay said. His advice to women? Apply for jobs and “Just show up. The only way to value anybody or to see his or her potential is to see the quality of the work.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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