It was recently revealed that 35% of tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are women, a surprising statistic, considering the global norm of 10%. Nicknamed the "start-up spring," the number of small technology firms in the MENA region is on the rise, and more and more women are flocking to it at a faster pace than the rest of the world. Here are three key reasons behind the trend:
Working in tech still allows women to conform with traditional social norms.
Why is it that over 50% of university graduates in the MENA region are female, yet women only make up a fifth of the region's workforce? The Economist observes that social and religious pressures — such as a husband's demand that his wife stay home — are what often lead women to shy away from conventional employment. Yet instead of giving up, women have found ways to circumvent traditional norms while fulfilling their ambitions through tech entrepreneurship. Bushra Mohammad Roken, student council leader at Zayed University in the UAE, told the BBC, "If he [my future husband] doesn't want me to go out, it's not like I'm in prison, because I could set up my own business from home." Another entrepreneur at a tech conference in Amman organized by Wamda, a service provider for start-ups, also says, "Running an Internet start-up from home is the perfect compromise" for an ambitious female entrepreneur who faces a family who objects to her leaving the home. That way she would still physically be at home, raise the children, and start her own business.
These attitudes are not only changing with women, but with men too. An increasing number of men accept and even advocate working wives. IT student Fahad Qahtani from the UAE says he would "want [his wife] to know something about life." Regarding housework and childcare, he says, "It's the man's house as well. If she has work and she's doing well, she's helping in other aspects and she has the right to get some help from the man."
The virtual nature of the internet creates a safe haven.
Because of the mostly virtual nature of the internet, tech entrepreneurship is meritocratic, allowing women to succeed and even dominate. Eugene Sensenig Dabbous, an Austrian living in Beirut whose wife directs the Lebanese American University's Women's Institute, notes "although a large percentage of the work force is now female, the gender-equality agenda is still languishing, considered a Western 'luxury' that developing countries cannot afford." The impressive number of successful females behind Internet start-ups should prove these attitudes wrong.
On a larger scale, working in tech also shields women (and men alike) from political instability in the MENA region. "Wars... definitely have an impact on the mood, the way people spend, the way people take goods from one place to another, [and] e-commerce," says Salwa Katkhuda, investment manager at Oasis500, a digital media and mobile sector business accelerator based in Amman. However, "the beauty of [an Internet start-up] is that it's virtual, it can stay on, and it can scale."
These women's own determination and drive are what spurs them on, and what ultimately makes them succeed.
Female tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East are not only hindered by traditional social norms — they also face long-standing sexual norms in the workforce that many working women elsewhere also endure. At a round table at the Wamda event, female tech entrepreneurs acknowledge their jobs are certainly tough ones:
"It's sometimes hard to get taken seriously," said one panelist. "Try telling a male employee that he has made a mistake," lamented another. And a third participant reported: "My mother always complains that I work too hard. 'Why do you do this to yourself? When do you get married?' she asks." (Economist)
Yet the women take these remarks in their stride, even turning them into something positive. Sarah Abu Alia, founder of ArtMedium, an online concert organizer, says, "As a woman, you have to fight for everything here — which is great preparation for being an entrepreneur."
The future of MENA women in tech
Many in the region also believe that a "lack of mentoring of young women in pursuing their career goals continues to impede them in the professional world." As a result, more and more women in the tech industry are reaching out to young entrepreneurs by holding conferences and training programs for working in tech. The TechWomen initiative launched by the U.S. State Department in 2010 also serves this purpose: The program pairs dozens of female tech entrepreneurs in the MENA region with their American counterparts in Silicon Valley for weeks of professional peer mentoring, after which they will return home with increased knowledge of how to further improve their businesses.
As Heba, a senior quality assurance engineer at the startup Vimov LLC, says, "I think women should be more encouraged to join the tech world... so that we can try to get rid of the perception that 'only men are doing it.' If we talked about it all the time, I think that would encourage more women to dive in."
Or as Jessica Obeid, energy engineer at the Community Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Demonstration Program for the Recovery of Lebanon said: "The world needs people courageous enough, determined enough and smart enough to make it better... And women have it all and much more... Never let anyone put you down, follow your dream and you'll figure along the way how to get there."