Mideast women in tech face challenges, but awareness of problems is growing

On International Women's Day, TML examines the situation of women in tech in the region

 Tasneem Harahsheh - Jordan.jpeg (photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
Tasneem Harahsheh - Jordan.jpeg
(photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)

The thriving technology industry is one of the fastest growing worldwide. In the Middle East region, there is a notable underrepresentation of women in the industry and, despite some progress, there are many challenges to overcome. Wednesday marks International Women's Day, and women from all over the region who are involved in the industry shared their perspectives with The Media Line.

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The women said that even though there are many challenges for women in tech in the Middle East, in most places there is progress in that there is broadening awareness of the problems.

Barriers to women in tech

In Turkey, "women have to struggle with some gender-related prejudices in the field of technology," according to Betul Yucel, a culture and change management consultant who worked as an advocate for empowering women in the economy and is a mentor for women in tech.

"Women who take on family and child responsibilities, both with the influence of society and in line with their personal needs, have difficulty in maintaining a balance of work, family, and social life," she told The Media Line, noting that one of the factors that most affects women's careers in the country is having a child and taking care of the child.

 Betul Yucel (credit: THE MEDIA LINE) Betul Yucel (credit: THE MEDIA LINE)

This issue also is highlighted by Elif Çelik, a young Turkish software engineer who is an activist for empowering women in tech. She says that, in addition, women have difficulty in the tech industry in Turkey due to the culture of the country.

While simply being female is challenging enough in Turkey, she told The Media Line, "It is really difficult to be a woman in the male-dominated technology industry."

Çelik shares some of the unpleasant experiences that she has encountered throughout her studies and career in tech. "I heard over and over from a few guys at work and school that I can't do anything technical and that I'm an unsuccessful person. I also see many men in the industry complaining about positive discrimination for women, and even arguing that women get a job just because they are women not because they are successful," she said.

She adds that, with time, awareness of this issue is growing, and that both corporations and local communities have hosted several events in an effort to bring attention to women in tech to the forefront. 

Inbal Orpaz, Strategic Innovation Consultant and founder of the Woman in Tech Initiative for gender equality in Israel, also believes that the major progress on the issue of how women are treated in tech is that, in the last few years, awareness is growing.

She points out that there are many challenges faced by women in the tech industry in Israel. For starters, women in Israel make up only about one-third of those working in tech, and this includes all of the professions in the industry, she told The Media Line. 

"As a woman in the Israeli tech ecosystem, in most rooms, you would be a minority," she said. 

Orpaz points out that the growth of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s participation in the industry was one of the biggest surprises to come out of the latest studies on the subject. 

"The number of ultra-Orthodox women grows three times faster than Jewish women who are not ultra-Orthodox and more than three times faster than Israeli-Arab women in tech," she noted.

From a general perspective of women in tech in Israel, Orpaz says that the situation is improving as more female students in universities and colleges are learning tech-related subjects. But studies show that the rate of men and women joining the tech industry is growing almost at the same pace, preventing the existing gap from disappearing or being reduced.

Orpaz believes that the right path to overcoming this issue is through approaching the companies directly. She says that women are as professionally motivated as men, so the issue lies in the companies. Her initiative, Women in Tech, found that decision-makers and senior executives in tech companies have unconscious biases and make decisions that, in many cases, hurt women's careers and their ability to get ahead.

She adds that more Israeli companies are becoming aware of this problem and are working to improve on the issues that prevent women from entering the companies or flourishing within them.

In Israel's neighbor, Jordan, the situation is more complicated. Tasneem Harahsheh, an inventor and researcher in nanotechnology and machine learning, and an Innovator Under 35 award winner from the MIT Technology Review told The Media Line that in her country there are challenges facing all individuals who work in the tech sector, regardless of gender, due to the lack of job opportunities in Jordan.

As a woman, however, the situation is even harder. Harahsheh points to three of the challenges that females face in this industry.

The first, she says, is the “challenge facing women with hijab," or headcovering proscribed by Muslim religious law. Second, Harahsheh notes, in some cases, single women are preferred over married women, and women may be asked about their plans for marriage or pregnancy during job interviews. "This can lead to bias in hiring and promotion decisions, and it can be a significant challenge for women who want to pursue both a career and a family," she said.

Last is the lack of support for childcare; this presents many difficulties for mothers in the industry. "Many companies do not provide on-site daycare or other childcare services, which can make it difficult for mothers to balance work and family responsibilities," she said.

Harahsheh says that it is important to recognize that there are organizations and initiatives in the country currently working to address these challenges and promote inclusivity in the industry. "Over the last few years, there has been an increased focus on diversity, and inclusion in the tech industry, and many organizations and initiatives have emerged to address the challenges that women face in this field," she said.

The Gulf region has improved the fastest in this area, says Laura Cretney, an entrepreneur and doctoral researcher based in Oman with a background in international development programming.

"The opportunities for women in the tech sector in the Gulf have never been greater," she told The Media Line, citing an Endeavor study in 2022, which showed that Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of women working in tech start-ups than Europe.

She notes that the growth of the tech space and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as well as women’s inclusion in the workforce, are intrinsically tied to the Gulf countries' national development goals.

She cites Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which explicitly outlines the kingdom’s commitment to innovation in advanced technologies and entrepreneurship, and to providing equal opportunities for men and women.

"Investment in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Gulf states, which is linked to the need to diversify their economies away from oil and gas, has given rise to a new generation of tech entrepreneurs, many of whom are women," she added.

Women face greater challenges in Iraq, Cretney says, and not just in tech, "but across the board."

"Decades of conflict, occupation, corruption and economic chaos have had a disproportionate effect on women, and many Iraqi women today are pushing against the tide, facing a lack of educational opportunities and access to the labor market," she added.

Also, many women in the country have experienced resistance and abuse from more conservative elements of society, "meaning the trend toward increased visibility of women in the tech and entrepreneurial spaces in the GCC has not spread to Iraq," she said.