‘There’s no limitation for innovation’ not even the occupation can hold you back, that’s the message Girls in Tech in Palestine want aspiring female entrepreneurs to hear’
The world is living in the age of a technological revolution that has fundamentally changed the way people, organisations and institutions communicate with each other.
Though technology allows us to cross borders from the comfort of our homes, the tech industry has not advanced enough to break down barriers put in front of women wishing to make it into the business, the co-managing director for Girls in Tech in Palestine says.
“The technology ecosystem here in Palestine is still not well structured,” Dr Mona Nabil Demaid explains. “It is still in its early stages and is not fully robust. We also have the challenge of poorly trained entrepreneurs.”
Due to the absence of a clear pipeline through which the government, the private sector and the academic institutions can effectively communicate with people and graduates for more involvement in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data, Palestinians are failing to compete internationally, she adds.
Palestine has long failed to create enough jobs for its growing working-age population. The youth make up 30 per cent of the society, unemployment amongst them is high, but it is women who suffer the worst.
“The government has slightly started understanding the importance of having women active in the technology industry though, there’s not a huge difference yet, but they are addressing it,” Mona says.
Such measures, she warns, will be short lived, however, if the pay gap isn’t addressed.
“After women graduate from universities, women often face discrimination and are not hired in their field. As a result, these women often have trouble transitioning into the job market and are prevented from translating attributes they graduated with into careers or jobs.”
Additionally, she also believes many women’s lack of confidence is hindering their progression leading them to miss out on entrepreneurial success, something Girls in Tech in Palestine hopes to address. The non-profit focuses on engaging and educating women who are passionate about technology, to encourage them and help improve their technical and communication skills.
“I realised when we have technical jobs to advertise for students who have good knowledge in AI or in software development, men tend to apply more than girls. However, when we’re asking basic support at a call centre, most of the CVs we receive are from girls,” she says.
“That was heartbreaking for me to discover because if we look at the marks and the performance of these girls at their university, they’re doing much better than the guys.”
Data shows that women in the Arab world outnumber their US counterparts studying STEM subjects, Mona says.
“Fifty-three per cent of students are enrolled in computer science programmes being girls, which is totally completely different to the amount of girls enrolled in the UK where it is around 18 per cent and United States – only 30 per cent – and declining.”
In spite of this, gender disparities are a major roadblock for women entrepreneurs looking to access resources, capital and support to launch and maintain their own ventures in the field of tech.
To help tackle the imbalance, Mona worked with Arab Women in Computing, an official chapter of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (Systers) dedicated to supporting Arab women in technology, and launched an international mentoring event in Morocco and networking technical events in Palestine, aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene together.
“We brought successful women from the US, UK and even from the Middle East who could talk about their experiences and give scholarships to students. And even though only two female students applied when it was held in Morocco, that was a huge step, because the year before that, no students had applied due to lack of confidence.”
“They have the brains, they have the knowledge and experience, but they need strong leadership,” she says.
In addition to this, she adds they must overcome cultural restrictions on mobility and access to finance.
Mona tells of a lively startup ecosystem that has emerged in recent years in Palestine, specifically in Ramallah where the tech startup scene is fast gaining ground.
“We find most of the students wanting to go to Ramallah where most of the tech companies are based but a lot of families are hesitant towards the girls. They say ‘we don’t want you to move to Ramallah, we want you to stay home’ which demotivates from pursuing high level jobs.”
The reality of living and working under occupation compounds their struggles, however, Mona is convinced the physical borders can be overcome through digitisation. A digital transformation of this kind could empower current and future generations, providing them with much-needed job opportunities and new forms of civic participation, particularly the women, she explains.
“There is no limitation for innovation,” she says.
More and more young people in the occupied West Bank see technology and innovation as an opportunity to create jobs and secure a livelihood, which can be achieved with a sturdier technological infrastructure. she explains. “An investment-friendly and smooth financial system to support startup operations are also essential,” she adds.
On the whole, the government is not giving the support it should be giving, she says.
“What we need to be able to do is keep the talent in our country and be able to say, ‘our tech products are made in Palestine, they were implemented in Palestine’ because we still don’t have that. And we won’t have that unless we – including the governmental authorities – start advancing our mentalities and exercising equal opportunities so the industry doesn’t remain so male-dominated.”
“I’m sick of hearing about the ‘first woman achievements’, we don’t want anymore ‘firsts’ in Palestine. We need all the girls here just to have the regular chances men have access to with no barriers.”