It is a remarkable fact that fewer women work in the Arab World than anywhere else. Logically, this state of affairs doesn’t make sense. Education, for one, is not the issue. Women in the region outnumber men in pursuing university degrees by a ratio of 108 to 100. Nor is achievement the problem. Standardized test results show that young Arab women and girls outperform their male classmates across different levels of education. And yet, gender differences in economic activity are larger than anywhere else. Looking at technology companies in the Middle East gives some perspective into this dilemma.
Thirty-five percent of internet companies in Arab countries have a female founder, compared to a global average of just 10 percent. According to Flat6Labs, a startup accelerator active in six major Arab cities, the percentage of companies with at least one female founder ranges from a low 30 percent in Cairo to a high 46 percent in Jeddah.
Is this a harbinger of greater economic inclusion of Arab women? The technology sector can play an important role in the economic activity of Arab women, and as tech grows, so does the potential for more economic power in the hands of women.
An increase in Arab women’s employment in the tech world will depend on whether the sector can attract more female talent. The value for women can come from the creation of fairer job opportunities in tech companies, especially as women have proven to be adept at math and science. Increasing Arab women’s economic power will also depend on whether technology companies can provide more large-scale marketplaces where women as merchants can sell their products and time and face less discrimination.
Let’s Play Ball
Technology companies can certainly provide fairer job opportunities. These are companies in the traditional information, communication, and technology sectors, as well as clean technology or technology-enabled companies. What they all have in common is the need for a technical skill-heavy workforce with technical knowhow. The fact that this knowhow can be tested without regard to gender, makes the tech industry a place in which women can work on a more level playing field.
However, for tech companies to really benefit from women’s economic activity, more women will have to translate doing well in math and science, to acquiring highly-demanded skills and this opportunity exists in the Arab World. At the University of Jordan, the country’s largest, women score higher grades in math, engineering, and computer information than men. Women made up 34 to 57 percent of graduates in science, engineering and agriculture across ten Arab countries. The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests science and math knowledge application and skills at age 15, found that girls outperformed boys in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Algeria; boys did so in Lebanon and Tunisia. Wider differences are even more visible in earlier grades. The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows that girls in grade 4 outperform boys in science and math in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, and Morocco. Add Egypt to the list when evaluating test scores for eighth graders. Across all of these tests, Arab girls outperformed boys, often by the largest margins globally. When boys did better, differences were relatively small.
So why then do women have trouble translating better education to the development of in-demand tech skills? Given the cultural and other practical daily constraints that women face—some of which are more entrenched in the Arab World—there is still not yet a broad understanding among women that jobs in this sector are compatible with their daily lives. In addition, the resources to be able to translate their education into market demanded skills in tech have only recently become more accessible.
Clearly some Arab women realize the importance of skill transfer for employment in tech. Founded by two Egyptian female entrepreneurs in their twenties, AlMakinah, for example, offers hands-on supplemental coding and programming courses. All AlMakinah graduates from the last training cycle have found jobs. Besides startups like AlMakinah, Arab women follow and utilize websites such as Lynda.com, which offer online self-study courses for a range of tech skills.
An issue for women in tech is confidence, a problem not unique to the Arab World. For the first time in 2013, the International Computer and Information Literacy Study tested grade 8 girls and boys in fourteen countries in computer and information literacy. Girls always outscored boys, mostly by sizable margins. However, in every country, boys outscored girls in how they perceived their own skills. Negative perceptions can strongly influence career aspirations.
Highlighting female tech business leaders as role models can shape perceptions of a woman’s chances at success—not only affecting whether women view the sector as welcoming to their talents, but also how society does as well. For the tech sector to attract this vast amount of female talent in the region, it will have to compete with other sectors by providing jobs that fit within the cultural constraints women face. But since tech industry jobs are oftentimes done remotely within flexible working hours the industry has gained credibility in creating and sustaining profitable jobs for Arab women.
Technology companies facilitate market transactions, reaching large numbers of customers and suppliers at low cost and even anonymously. Women benefit from marketplaces where gender can be irrelevant to transactions. Souq.com, the region’s leading e-commerce platform, for example, creates a space for market competition less influenced by gender. Like with products, tech companies have fundamentally changed the sale of a worker’s time. Take for instance ride-hailing apps like Careem and Uber, which are leading examples of tech’s power to create value from under- and unutilized labor. Despite the fact that few drivers in Arab states are female, these companies have been hugely disruptive in allowing women to compete on an even footing with men, with the additional safety and security provided by tech platforms. Hopefully with time and perhaps with more female business leaders in the sector, tech companies will be able to harness even larger amounts of underutilized female labor.
Technology companies have much to offer women in Arab countries and Arab women have much to offer technology companies. More and more technology companies are disrupting environments that have effectively excluded Arab women from economic activity. As tech opens doors for women, the force of change will be inexorable. Perhaps the real question is not who will support an economic force of talented Arab women, but who can stop it.
Ahmed El-Alfi is the chairman of Sawari Ventures, a leading MENA venture capital firm, The Greek Campus; a tech StartUp Hub in Cairo, Assiut and Nafham, an Arabic Education platform. He also co-founded Flat6Labs, a startup accelerator in 6 MENA countries, and is a supporter of entrepreneurship in the MENA region.
Iris Boutros is an economist, strategist and opinion writer focusing on growth, impact investing, small enterprise development, the business environment, and the economic opportunity gaps women and youth face. She previously had a weekly opinion column in the Daily News Egypt and has written for business and current affairs publications.
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