In a world of AI and Web 3.0, the need for gender diversity and representation in the tech sector has never been more crucial. To shed light on this vital topic, Linda Sabbarini, Gender Consultant at NAMA Women; Ayesha Sodha, Managing Partner at Vim Meraki; Joyce Baz, Head of PR & Communication at Google MENA; Angela Halawi, UAE Chapter Ambassador at Women in Tech; Reem Alattas, Director and Value Advisory at SAP & DataNaut at NASA; and Neamat Al Gayar, Director of Artificial Intelligence MSc Program at Heriot-Watt University, take the stage to share their invaluable insights on why it is integral for women to be represented in the tech sector and what it could mean for the industry as a whole.
What does the gender gap in the MENA region’s tech industry look like? How has the region progressed in bridging the same?
Linda Sabbarini: We are gathered here today because we are driven to bring about change. To accomplish this, we need evidence, and to obtain evidence, we require data. Unfortunately, in the tech sector, data regarding the participation of women, and even men, is highly fragmented, incomplete, and inadequate to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the future trajectory of men and women in this field. It is known that women’s participation in the labor market in the Arab states stands at approximately 18%, which is significantly below the global average of 45%. When comparing the Arab states to other regions, we find ourselves at the lowest level of participation.
Ayesha Sodha: I think this ultimately depends on our parameters for measurement. What exactly constitutes the tech industry, and how do we define a woman in tech? Is it limited to individuals working at companies that self-identify as ‘IT,’ or does it encompass companies whose products are technology-driven? Additionally, do we categorize women in tech solely as coders, or does it extend to women working in operational or business-centric roles within a technology-focused environment? Personally, I had never considered myself a woman in tech until recently, despite having spent my entire career in technology-related environments. Once we establish these definitions, we can delve further into the discussion.
If we examine the overarching perspective, there is a significant number of women in tech-related roles in the MENA region, more than I have encountered throughout my career anywhere else in the world. Particularly with the emergence of the Web3 revolution, there is a higher representation of female counterparts. Since relocating to Dubai, I have never found myself as the only woman in a room, which was frequently the case in the UK.
Joyce Baz: Let’s address the elephant in the room: why aren’t there enough women in the tech sector? This question requires a nuanced approach, considering three key points globally before focusing on the region. Firstly, it is crucial to identify the specific gaps in women’s representation within the tech industry. Are these gaps evident in overall representation or in specific types of tech roles? Tech roles encompass a wide range, as rightly mentioned by Ayesha - including program managers, product managers, and software engineers. Is the problem rooted in the availability of talent? Are there an insufficient number of STEM graduates today? Or does the issue lie within the hiring practices of employers? Do they involve women in interview committees? How do they support the career progression of women within their companies? ‘Women in Tech’ is a broad term that encompasses underrepresented women in various roles. This analysis pertains to the global context.
When considering the region, as mentioned earlier, there is a lack of available data and research. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of companies to share transparent reports, ensuring compliance with legal requirements in respective countries. At Google, over 53% of our non-tech workforce comprises women, highlighting their presence in critical positions such as sales, marketing, and communications, which often go unnoticed. These roles play an essential part in supporting any tech company. This brings us to the second significant nuance - to gain a comprehensive understanding of women in tech within the region, it is essential to analyze the talent pool. Exploring recruitment agencies, their insights can shed light on the problem. According to UNESCO, 57% to be precise of STEM graduates in the region are women, which surpasses the global average. This statistic raises further questions and prompts deeper analysis.” If the supply is there. Where’s the problem? And this is where I think we need to direct our attention to employers to the private sector and encourage the public & the private sector to talk to each other to make sure that these hiring practices are enhanced.
Hiring and retaining talent is one challenge that every sector today is struggling with. How can big media and technology solution providers attract this talent?
Ayesha Sodha: I have three solutions to this issue:
a) Flexible working: Most roles are not bound by time or location and can be performed at any time during the day. This significantly expands the potential talent pool.
b) Nurturing talent for growth and career development: Take the time to understand employees’ short-term and long-term aspirations. When individuals feel engaged, they are more likely to invest extra effort and time, resulting in a higher return on investment for the company.
c) Providing mentors: Despite ongoing discussions, there is still limited infrastructure in place to support mentorship. Internal mentorship programs can sometimes be challenging, especially
in smaller companies. Exploring alternative ways to offer confidential and supportive mentorship can be beneficial.
Angela Halawi: First of all, it is worth mentioning the issue of underrepresentation, which Joyce touched upon briefly. Currently, there is a noticeable global underrepresentation of women in core tech roles such as cybersecurity, Web3 program development, and others. According to the World Economic Forum, this underrepresentation stands at around 17%, which is alarmingly low. Additionally, when we consider career advancement, there is a significant gap between men and women. This disparity is an area that requires attention.
However, I also want to highlight the situation in the UAE, which is a source of pride. The UAE is actively promoting and supporting female participation in various roles, including ministries. It is noteworthy that the UAE has the highest percentage of female STEM graduates in the world, with 60% of females graduating in STEM fields. This achievement is highly significant. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that conscious and unconscious biases still persist, indicating the need for continuous improvement in this area.
Dr. Neamat Al Gayar: The competition for technology talent is intensifying as software and technology play a crucial role across various industries. A robust DEI strategy can play a crucial role in attracting talent as it has emerged as a significant factor in the decision-making process of potential recruits. Developing a successful organizational culture may appear unclear, but one evident facilitator is the provision of high-quality coaching and employee development. This is important for nurturing talented employees who possess the necessary capabilities but may lack extensive experience. Finally, transparent, and accountable senior management is essential in retaining talent. Qualified candidates will prefer a firm where they feel their work has real impact.
Reem Alattas: First, women bring a unique perspective to the table. They approach problem-solving and innovation from a different angle, and that’s where the magic happens. Now, let’s talk about the impact on final products, including AI. Women’s contributions are like a breath of fresh air. They bring a human-centered approach to technology, ensuring that the products we create are inclusive, ethical, and beneficial for everyone. Women understand the importance of diverse representation in AI algorithms, which helps prevent biases and ensures fairness.
But here’s the real deal, women are not just passengers on this tech train; they’re driving it! They’re at the forefront of innovation, leading groundbreaking initiatives, and spearheading game-changing projects. Women are breaking barriers and achieving remarkable feats in tech, and their impact is felt throughout the industry. Their creativity, their leadership, and their relentless drive are driving growth, pushing boundaries, and transforming the world as we know it. In conclusion, women are the secret sauce that fuels growth and innovation in the tech industry. Their impact on final products, including AI, is profound and transformative. Let’s celebrate and empower women in tech because when we do, we unleash a tidal wave of brilliance that propels us into a future filled with endless possibilities.
It’s no secret that the tech industry globally is washed in and giving in to the ‘tech bro’ culture. What is your advice on dealing with this culture? Considering the ongoing speculation of whether the industry is going to become scarcer for women.
Ayesha Sodha: Understand the “why” and don’t take it personally. When men in tech exclude women, it’s not because they have an issue with women. Many men in the tech industry grew up as “geeks” and had limited interactions with women. Speaking and interacting with women was seen as something only the “cool kids” did, and it held a certain allure. Then, tech suddenly became cool, and these shy geeks found wealth and desirability. However, this sudden shift didn’t automatically change their internal capability and comfort in conversing with women. At the end of the day, we are animals driven by instincts. We tend to gravitate towards those who are similar to us because they are easier to relate to. Women often connect with other women more quickly, and the same can be said for men. Once you realize that it’s not about you and that people may simply be shy, you can focus on forming connections that speak to individuals in their preferred languages. For instance, I once wrote a justification for a patent application response in comic strips because the Chief Scientist wasn’t getting back to any of my emails and the deadline was approaching. This time, I got a response within 48 hours.
Joyce Baz: In my opinion, a more nuanced question to consider is how we ensure that women are involved in overseeing any product or service offered by a company, as it is crucial for overall success. Let’s take Google, where I work, as an example. We believe that our products, such as Search, Gmail, YouTube, and Maps, should reflect the diversity of the users we serve, which includes both men and women, as well as diverse racial backgrounds. This broader topic relates to inclusion as a whole. So, when discussing leadership, it’s essential for it to represent the workforce. Therefore, when examining the workforce, it becomes necessary to ensure that there is diverse leadership representing them. Now, let’s delve into the question of how we can ensure women’s involvement in developing AI products and systems. To find answers, we must narrow down our focus and identify the specific gaps. If the issue lies in the talent pool, then we should address it by investing in academia. However, it’s important to remember that building a strong STEM talent pool takes time, typically five to seven years, as it requires individuals to pursue education and enter the workforce. If the problem lies in hiring practices, employers must be held accountable.
I consider myself fortunate to work for a company that prioritizes strong DE&I principles in its hiring process. We ensure that every interview committee has a balanced representation of gender, and job descriptions are written in a way that does not marginalize or alienate women. Research shows that women tend to apply for a job only if they believe they meet all the requirements, whereas men often apply if they believe they have the potential. Hence, the way a job description is crafted can significantly impact the pool of applicants. In these significant discussions, we need to move beyond high-level conversations and focus on granular details wherever data is available. And when data is lacking, we should ask the right questions, as valuable insights can be gained even from anecdotal evidence.
Dr. Neamat Al Gayar: Businesses should foster a culture of open dialogue among their staff members, which can be achieved by creating platforms or forums for sharing suggestions and ideas. This enables employees to voice their concerns and provide suggestions for improving the workplace culture. Some workers may be unaware of their biases or the impact of their behaviors on others. Finally, training on unconscious bias can help raise awareness and promote more inclusive behaviors.
Reem Alattas: First things first, we need to acknowledge that this “tech bro” culture exists. It’s that male-dominated environment where women are often overlooked, undervalued, and underestimated. But, this culture isn’t doing anybody any favors. It stifles innovation, limits creativity, and reinforces outdated stereotypes. But here’s the good news: We can turn the tide. To deal with this “tech bro” culture, we have to address it from multiple angles. Education is key. We need to start early, encouraging young girls to pursue their passions in STEM fields. We need to provide mentorship and support networks that help women navigate the tech industry and overcome any obstacles they may face. It’s time for men to step up and be allies. We need men in the tech industry to challenge the status quo, to call out bias and discrimination when they see it, and to actively work towards creating a more inclusive and respectful work environment. This isn’t a battle between men and women; it’s a fight for equality and progress. We also need companies and organizations to take responsibility. It’s not enough to have diversity initiatives on paper; we need real, tangible actions. We need fair hiring practices, equal pay, and opportunities for career growth. We need leaders who prioritize diversity and inclusion, and who understand that a diverse workforce leads to better innovation and business outcomes. In conclusion, we can’t ignore the “tech bro” culture and perception any longer. We need to address it head-on, together. It’s time to create an industry that values and respects the contributions of women.
What role do stakeholders – big media, solution providers, and recruiters play in promoting more women to take up leadership roles in this industry?
Angela Halawi: I believe that large tech organizations, leaders, and managers play a significant role and have a great opportunity to advance women in tech. It is their responsibility to provide mentorship, and networking opportunities, and build confidence among female employees. By fostering a deep cultural change within our organizations, particularly in the private sector and tech organizations, we can initiate this transformation.
However, this process takes time, possibly spanning several years. Speaking from my experience in the industry, working for Microsoft, we take these matters very seriously. Diversity and inclusion, including women in tech, are key components of our agenda. We prioritize activities such as networking and external mentoring to support career progression. Even organizations that do not currently have these initiatives can explore collaborations with external organizations to achieve the same goals. There are multiple avenues to pursue, but it must be done intentionally and with a clear focus.
Dr. Neamat Al Gayar: Stakeholders, including big media, solution providers, and recruiters, play a crucial role in promoting and encouraging more women to take up leadership roles in the industry. By highlighting success stories of women leaders and their accomplishments, big media can provide role models and demonstrate that women can excel in leadership roles within the industry. By highlighting success stories of women leaders and their accomplishments, big media can provide role models and demonstrate that women can excel in leadership roles within the industry.
Solution providers can create products, services, and technologies that address the needs and challenges faced by women in the industry, promoting gender equality and inclusivity. This is only possible by ensuring equal representation of women in leadership. Data by the UN in 2022 shows that only one in five professionals in AI is a woman. As the impact of AI on society continues to grow, women’s needs and perspectives may be overlooked in the design of products that impact their daily lives if they are not equally represented. Finally, recruiters can proactively seek out talented women candidates through targeted outreach efforts, partnerships with women-focused organizations, and by attending events and conferences that cater to women in the industry. Additionally, implementing fair and unbiased hiring practices to ensure that women candidates have equal opportunities to secure leadership roles is of equal importance.
How famous is mentorship in this sector particularly? Is it something that aspiring amateurs today can look into when considering this field of work?
Ayesha Sodha: Mentorship is a topic that many companies discuss but few implement - typically seen in larger and more established corporations. This discrepancy arises due to understandable reasons, including the fact that start-ups are primarily focused on survival during their initial stages. However, there comes a point (although undefined) when a company would benefit more from investing effort into retaining their existing staff, as training can be resource-intensive. In a start-up environment, mentorship becomes particularly valuable in developing the skills of current employees, especially since they often take on significant responsibilities for which they may not have been fully prepared.
Dr. Neamat Al Gayar: Several studies highlight the advantages of effective mentoring programs, such as enhanced individual career success and increased employee engagement, retention, and knowledge-sharing within organizations. Mentorship provides women with guidance and support, particularly in navigating the challenges that they face in the technology industry. Mentors can help women build their confidence, develop strategies to overcome challenges and provide guidance on how to succeed in a male-dominated environment. They can also help connect women with individuals and networks within the technology industry to help them broaden their professional networks, establish relationships with industry leaders, and access new opportunities.
While it is crucial for women to have mentors, who offer career guidance, support, feedback, and knowledge, having sponsors who can leverage their position and influence to actively advocate for the career advancement of junior employees is critical. Sponsoring women in tech can set an example for tech companies and show that it’s important to support women within the industry. It can also help create more awareness of the issue of gender diversity in tech.
This piece was first published in Communicate's Women to Watch Issue 2023.