The Pan-Arab Semifinals of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup this year was bustling with youth that represented the brightest tech minds in the region. Amid all the excitement, one beautiful factor stood out at the competition’s backdrop of the American University of Cairo: a large portion of those youth were women.
Two young women from Oman sacrificed their college finals — suffering a withdrawal from the semester as a result — in order to attend. The Palestine team struggled to leave their occupied land in order to compete in Egypt, including one of their ambitious female team members.
One young woman from Bahrain pushed past her disappointment from losing last year to compete again this year. This time, her team won first place.
The tech and startup space is booming in the Middle East right now, especially among millennials. Middle Eastern women make up a higher percentage of entrepreneurs in the region than the global average.
Led by Citizenship & Social Responsibility Lead Ghada Khalifa, Microsoft has responded to this exciting trend by including a women’s track at the Imagine Cup Pan-Arab Finals this year, for the first time since its inception. Microsoft’s goal is encourage and catalyze more women in STEM fields in the region, which Ghada believes is the answer to gender inequity in the Arab world.
During one portion of the women’s track program, young women competitors opened up about the challenges they face in their fields and the difficult obstacles they have had to overcome to pursue their passion in tech. After the discussion, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ghada and discuss the competition, its draw of women competitors, and what she saw of its impact on the Middle East and its future.
Muslim Girl: One of the things worth exploring is the claim to stop saying “gender sensitive family training,” because it’s just “family training,” — as it should be for both men and women. Does the same thing apply to discussions around tech? Because right now we have a separate track for women to talk about these issues, but there are very few men in the room. And aren’t they the ones that should be hearing this, so they can like understand what the problems are and how they can better include women?
Ghada Khalifa: We had a program dedicated to women in tech, or women in STEM generally since 2013. And — to be very honest, our learning of it is that the one — the biggest hindrance for women is women, not men.
The reason I’m saying that it’s a hindrance is in the lack of confidence. That is a serious issue. If you have confidence, no one can stop you. No one can stop you.
The second thing that we have learned is that women do not open up and speak out about their challenges as much as men. It doesn’t apply to all social classes. The more affluent social classes have that self-confidence; they are already exposed largely to a mixed community. They don’t have that hindrance.
When you look at more of the lower social classes, those who did not get a very advanced international education levels, they need support. They need to feel confident that they can talk about their problems and can open up and that someone is gonna hear them.
The women who are going into STEM, they need to understand that a lot of social norms that they have been hearing do not apply. Because they can be whatever they want to be. And a lot of stereotyping does not apply. The fact that she’s a woman in tech does not make her incapable of marriage. I’m being frank because that’s something you hear, “No, no that will make me look like some sort of a feminist, or it will put off a man.”
Even in private schools, even in upper classes, they kind of have this stereotype that if you are a woman in computer science, you are a nerd, and if you are a nerd — you’re not “feminine.” You can be feminine. You can be a woman in technology. You can be anything you want as long as you understand that’s where your passion is.
So what about the structural cultural problems? Because, the statistics that we heard so far, women are doing exceptionally well in education, in different fields — where we typically would assume they are facing a lot of challenges. I could only assume the employers are men — and that’s part of the reason why there are such high unemployment rates for women.
Some of the girls might be exceptionally confident, but many of them are going to face a lot of difficulties after they graduate and get into the work field — finding these jobs and getting any type of prominence. Because I feel like a lot of these differences are imposed by men. Are they not?
I agree with you. And in this case, we are only thinking in terms of job placement. One of the things that you will find women are also capable of is that they take risks. So we need to think in terms of employability of women — not only job placement of women.
If we’re talking about technology and STEM, we need to look into having women as social entrepreneurs.
Women can be freelancers and work from home. They don’t have to be placed in a job appointed by a man. It’s a two-way thing. One, you build the capacity of women, you build their ability, you show by example that women are quite capable of taking on these jobs. And in doing so, you restore the confidence of the employer and open up another track through which she can be employed.
Computer science is one of the areas where women can easily start a business. It doesn’t need such a big amount of money to start. She can do business on her own. This offers her a lot of opportunity. We need to make her have that self-confidence to pursue that. How many startups are in Egypt are owned by women?
In the field of computer science, it’s rare. It’s not as many as it should be, right? It’s not. And when we look at startups owned by women in any of the Arab countries — we need to find a lot more in the future, because that an area where they can excel. That’s an area where they can also bring the social innovation that all the Arab countries are in need of. Women consist 50 percent of society. They should be there.
Do you think that the involvement of women in tech, startups, entrepreneurism would contribute to combating this global climate of Islamophobia that we are experiencing in our generation right now?
I would say it would create opportunity — and as long as you are creating opportunity, you are also helping a lot of youth at risk. If you give a person hope, then they have a purpose and they have something to pursue on the positive side. But, yes, I do believe that women play a big role.
A woman can play a role as a mother raising her children, she can play a role as a contributor to the economic state of the country. And she can also play a role in shaping the future by addressing societal challenges that hinder progress or the development of a certain community or individuals.
What do you think are the resources that women could most find useful in creating like an even playing field?
You know, one of the resources that we hardly leverage is mentorship. If you mentor one girl, two girls, five girls, you are going to create opportunity for five individuals, who are going to create opportunities each of them for five individuals, and on and on and on. The wealth of your knowledge, of your experience, of your education, if its passed onto lesser advantaged women or lesser women, or lesser opportunity — if we pass on that knowledge, then that is wealth. This is going to create a new path for a lot of women.
I’ll tell you a story. I knew a young girl in Egypt who was forced into marriage by her parents. She has a small child. Her parents were asking her to get married. Again, to someone she didn’t want to marry. They were forcing her. They wanted her to sit at home, raise her kids. She felt that her life has ended. She went into a mentorship program, and her mentor built her self confidence, helped her to put her on the right track, and that young girl applied for a scholarship in the United States. She took her kid and went there.
For me, I saw that girl in the beginning, and how she felt oppressed, she felt that she had no future. Now, she has all the future in the world. I’m sure she’s gonna change a lot of things.
There are a lot of other examples. Again, we need Arab women like you. We need Arab women, who were lucky enough to be well-educated, have strong characters, have their own careers. They are the examples that we need to influence others, and that mentorship is very, very important.
Computer science education is important. I’m not saying they have to be in technology, not at all — but it gives women the self-confidence. Everybody tells them, “Oh, you are a woman, you won’t be able. You’re not built that way. Your mind is not built that way. You can’t be in computer science.”
No, she can. It’s very easy. Give her that self-confidence. And we train a huge amount of women who very young, so when they say, “No, no, we will never be able to learn,” we say: No, no, it’s very easy. Why are they saying its so difficult? It’s not difficult, it’s so easy. So it’s building your self-confidence, learning to be critical in their thinking, learning to have the courage to try something new.
That is why we are pushing computer science education for young girls at the young age, just for that reason — Not necessarily just that they become computer scientists or that they work in a field related to technology.
Actually, if you look at it differently, most fields now depend on technology. So that’s also if you give them that, you are giving them a tool for the next generation’s employability.
Transcribed by Halimah Elmariah
Edited by Shanzay Farzan