RAMALLAH – Clients answering the door bell for service personnel in the Palestinian Authority may be in for a bit of a surprise: Women are doing what used to be considered work for men only as they take advantage of an increasing number of new opportunities to join the workforce.

Women are finding positions with a growing number of businesses, especially those that send employees on home visits, in some cases allowing the customer to opt for a female over a male technician.

The response has been so great that long-established companies in the West Bank are now trying to meet this growing demand with new services.

“For Gemzo female service, press 2,” the voice on the answering machine at Ramallah’s Gemzo Internet Service Company says when you call. “The female support service is what distinguishes us,” the automated voice on the other end tells the company’s prospective clients.

While female voices and customer-service responses by women on the phone were typical until now, Gemzo offers a service that is becoming more popular: women actually visiting customers’ homes to provide information-technology support services.

Gemzo Internet Services is the only IT company in the West Bank providing this option for women clients, a service it launched in January 2013.

“Ten percent of the company’s clients signed up for the gender-specific services,” said Gemzo general manager Basel Ghareeb. Customer satisfaction has improved, he adds, increasing his market share of the Palestinian IT market to 20 percent. Of Gemzo’s total work force of 45, half of the call-center employees are women, while two other women perform field visits.

Areej Zeid, 27, a Gemzo technician who wears a hijab head-covering but not other traditional women’s garb, said she is specifically requested by clients about twice a week.

“Sometimes women say they prefer I visit to resolve the Internet problem they’re having because their husbands are not at home,” Zeid told The Media Line. She said she is happy that more people are confident in her ability to handle IT problems in what had traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

“We’re also helping to raise confidence in women working in IT,” Gemzo GM Ghareeb said.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported a 2% increase in women in the workplace, from 14% to 16%, between 2010 and 2011, noting that one-third of all working women are employed by the Palestinian Authority itself. This, in contrast to in Israel, where 52.6% of women are in the workforce.

Palestinian women have traditionally maintained a stronger presence in the academic sphere, where 57% of university students were women in 2010- 2011. Palestinian colleges graduated almost 11,000 students in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2011.

The number of women working in the private sector also varies according to the job description. The overwhelming number of working women is found in hair and cosmetic fields and agriculture, with only 0.9% of women in IT and communications.

“The majority of women feel comfortable coming to female-only hair salons because it’s not acceptable to take the head scarf off in public if men are around,” said Hameeda Mansour, owner of the Hameeda Hair Salon in El Bireh, near Ramallah.

“Only a small number of males have hair salons, but they cater to a select group of women who feel it’s an elite thing to go to male hairdressers,” she told The Media Line.

Even in this female-dominated field, bias against women can be found.

“I go to male hairdressers because I feel they are more qualified and trained as professional hairdressers compared to women, who are not,” said Riham Mohammad, 32, an accountant. When asked about women in the IT sector, Mohammad said she is not against having female technicians do the work as long as they are qualified.

Gemzo client Amal Shakir, 28, signed up for the women’s-only service and said it makes her life easier.

““My father prefers to be at home if a male technician comes to the house,” she said. “He can’t take time off from work and wait for technicians to be available.”

Shakir said she knows of other women who also prefer this service because their IT routers are set up in their bedrooms, making it awkward for the female client to allow a male to enter her private space.

“We usually arrange a time that suits our clients,” Atteyeh Kanan, support-service manager at the Call U Internet-service company, told The Media Line.

“Some women have no problem, but others prefer a man to be in the household when we visit. This is why we organize late visits.”

There is no additional charge for the specialized women’s-only service.

“Prices of Internet-service providers are fixed, so we try to be special in the services we provide,” Ghareeb told The Media Line. “I disagree with those who have women restaurants or coffee shops, but in this case it’s different because it’s in a private home rather than a public place.”

Ghareeb said he had received a letter of appreciation from Minister of Telecommunication Safa’ Naser Al Deen.

“She said our service encourages more women to join the workforce,” he said. “We don’t consider this a form of separation but more of customized convenience for Palestinian women,” he added.

Cultural norms do create circumstances that require gender separation, however, particularly at weddings. Women photographers and DJs often are chosen to do such work specifically among women at weddings where men and women sit in separate halls.

Ramallah’s Studio Al Amar is one such company that offers a full package for a wedding party, providing both cameraman and camerawomen.

“This allows any woman to be able to participate in the wedding without wearing the hijab and to be photographed in keeping with the principles of the Islamic faith,” manager Sa’eed Ahmed said. Al Amar employs 14 women and eight men who are photographers “because 80% of my clients ask for women,” he said. The company has been offering the special “female service” for 10 years.

However, not all special gender matters have yet been solved by these companies. Ghareeb wanted to put two separate doors at his company, one for men and one for women, but said he “recanted because it felt like segregation. But I want to buy a pink car for the company’s female technicians to use in their field visits.”   

For more stories from The Media Line go to http://www.themedialine.org/

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