Virtual equality

Meet the women exploiting technology in a bid to sidestep gender bias and take aim at the glass ceiling

Before I worked, I was just another woman in the family,” recalls Maria Umar, from her office in Pakistan. “The moment I started work, and the money started coming in – even the very little in the beginning – that put me in the spotlight. The invisibility cloak came off. When you’re earning, you’re important and intelligent.”

“It’s not just about financial empowerment. The emotional empowerment is so much more valuable than the money you can earn”

Umar is the founder of Women’s Digital League (WDL), a social enterprise that links women to online micro-tasking jobs. Remote working doesn’t get much more remote. The women’s tasks range from answering queries sent to global Q&A site Quora, to putting up recipes for Silicon Valley food blog Love With Food from their homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which borders China.

“I tell my girls it’s not just about financial empowerment,” adds Umar. “The emotional empowerment is so much more valuable than the money you can earn.”

Umar, an entrepreneur and mother of two, is one of a growing gang of women harnessing the power of technology to tackle workplace inequality. Typically the preserve of male geeks, women in the Middle East and South Asia are swelling the ranks of science and technology and launching tech-powered enterprises. Some see technology as a means to get more women into the labour market, others as a weapon against barriers that restrict their lives. But both tactics get women a little further down the road to equality.

Too few women in the region are in work. Women generate just 17 per cent of economic output in India and 18 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to data from the McKinsey Global Institute. In the US, it is 40 per cent. Gender parity in the labour market could inject $700bn and $600bn into the Indian and MENA economies respectively by 2025.

This female absence is at odds with classroom trends. Unlike the US, more Arab women than men enrol in scientific degrees, but the journey from lecture hall to lab has proved to be a difficult one. In 2011, women accounted for just 1 per cent of science and technology researchers in Saudi Arabia and 19 per cent in Palestine – far below the world average of 30 per cent.

Oft-cited obstacles to progress include cultural norms, the reluctance of men to recruit women, and a region-wide dearth of technology jobs.

For some women, technology is a way to avoid cultural barriers that obstruct entry to the labour force. According to WDL’s Umar, working virtually is a way to tap a smart but stagnant talent pool, while pandering to social norms. In Pakistan, less than a quarter of workers are women.

WDL links graduates to freelance jobs, such as data entry or transcribing, for a 10 to 20 per cent fee. The pool of tasks is small – around 10 per month – but demand is high. Some 10,000 women are on its books, many with PhDs. The organisation has also teamed up with the World Bank to train 360 women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in web design and image editing, skills which they then market to Pakistani companies. Around 60 per cent have found jobs, says Umar.

Flexible working lets women contribute economically while making small, acceptable social gains. The women earn between $100 and $800 a month, which can make a world of difference for families subsisting on a father’s pension, or pay for a sibling’s tuition fees, says Umar. But the real benefit is not monetary.

“Technology gives dignified work to people who studied hard to get an education,” she says. “They just need a chance to break through that cycle and work from home.”

Some difficulties are particular to developing countries, but others are common the world-over. Among them is a wariness of hiring females that recruiters fear will desert the firm for family.

A group of Egyptian women, all with backgrounds in tech, think they have one fix. In 2015, Doaa ElEraqy and her three co-founders pitched the idea of ‘returnships’ at an event run by US-funded programme, TechWomen. Like internships, the group wants to set up a platform – called She is Back! – to connect Arab women taking career breaks, with technology firms. Women are offered spots on three-month courses aimed at refreshing their technical skills, and putting them in touch with potential employers.

“She is Back will give those women an edge and the confidence to pursue their careers again,” says ElEraqy. The idea has already netted $2,500 seed funding and the group hopes to pilot the idea in Egypt early this year.

Dubai-based Loulou Khazen Baz is also leveraging technology to connect freelancers to jobs they can do from home. Her business, Nabbesh, links its 83,000 members – mostly from the UAE, Egypt and Lebanon – to companies seeking help with web development, data entry and translation tasks. Neither Baz nor WDL’s Umar are techies themselves, but they were quick to use technology to power their businesses. In a region beset by unemployment, this aspect of founding a startup is crucial. “The only space where you have a chance to succeed as an entrepreneur especially if you are not from a wealthy background, is to look into technology. It’s cheaper to set up than other types of company,” says Baz. “The challenge for me is having people to trust on the technology side. If I had the time to learn to code, I would.”

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Getting more women into coding is vital, given technology’s growing role in the global economy and potential to deliver millions of jobs, says Sana Odeh, a computer science professor at New York University and founder of Arab Women in Computing, a network of 1,300 women in 16 countries.

“Technology is absolutely a leveller for women’s rights”

“If women are not part of this field and trained enough, or not in senior positions, then women are going to lose out in a big way,” she says.

MENA’s women need more funding in technology, science and engineering education, such as money for PhDs and scholarships to study abroad where those programmes don’t exist in the region, says Odeh. They are also in need of more exposure to tech careers with the Googles and Facebooks of the world.

“The lack of women in computing and technology is not an international pattern,” stresses Odeh, who believes global companies could plug their female deficit by doing more to mentor and train Arab female graduates.

For Mary Helmig, director of TechGirls – a coding scheme for girls – the impact of getting more Arab women into tech firms will reverberate across society. “Technology is absolutely a leveller for women’s rights,” she observes. “There are so many opportunities for employment through technology and how it is being used. It will give women a voice.”

Girls that code

“I first got interested in coding at school where we took C++ courses. The results you get from a bunch of codes is amazing,” says Rasha Al-Khateeb, who comes from Jordan. “It’s a fascinating feeling when you understand this language.”

Rasha is one of 27 girls from MENA to take part in the fourth cohort of TechGirls, a US-funded initiative to expose girls aged 15 to 17 to the careers available in technology. Support for teenage girls studying maths and sciences currently tends to funnel them into medicine or research, says Mary Helmig, director of TechGirls. The girls from eight countries – from Algeria to Yemen – take a three-week course in the US, including 50 hours of tech training such as coding and website design. More than 100 have taken part since the programme started in 2012.

TechGirls urges its participants to give back, with some of 2015’s graduates volunteering with UNHCR or the Red Cross. They are also required to share their skills, with many setting up computer clubs at their schools.

The girls learn confidence as well as coding. This is partly through travel, exposure to jobs through a work placement and the programme’s region-wide approach. “A lot of the confidence comes from meeting other women and knowing they are not the only ones who are this smart and taking on these big subjects,” explains Helmig.

For the TechGirls, the programme seems to be working. Rasha has changed her major from medicine to computer science; she now wants to become a software engineer. Others don’t even have labels yet for the future employment they are imagining for themselves.

“My dream is to pursue a technology career in healthcare. Even if the job doesn’t exist, I’m going to do my best to create it,” says an enthusiastic Sonia Zoghlami, from Tunisia. “We need to show women the awesomeness of technology. It’s not a ‘man’s thing’.”

Street smart

Technology is a new weapon in the war against violence that restricts women’s lives. After the fatal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, India, in 2012, ElsaMarie D’Silva set up Safecity, a digital tool that collects reports of sexual violence – from catcalls and stalking, to sexual assault – to map harassment hotspots.

“Non-verbal and verbal violence is equally debilitating. It limits movement and women’s potential,” says D’Silva.

Inspired by Egypt’s HarassMap, women can go online or miss-call Safecity to report an incident, or tweet to #pinthecreep. Technology alone, however, is not enough. After an initial flurry of stories, Safecity found the number of reports began to dwindle. “We found many women didn’t realise what they were experiencing was sexual violence. They didn’t know how to identify it,” D’Silva says.

Safecity started working with neighbourhood NGOs to raise awareness and has held workshops for more than 4,000 people in four cities. Today, it receives around 10 reports a day, mostly from Delhi and Mumbai, with 6,300 reports in total.

Data in hand, Safecity lobbies for practical progress, such as changing behaviour through murals and street plays. By approaching local authorities, it has helped to modify police patrol timings, fix street lighting and unlock public toilets where women were once vulnerable to attack.

“Data is important because you’re no longer working on individual cases where it’s easy to turn the spotlight on the victim,” explains D’Silva. “The beauty of data is that it makes a trend visible and forces action.”