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How to attract more women into the Gulf tech sector

Organisations in the Middle East need to increase the number of women in their IT workforces

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Middle East: CW Middle East: How women can fill the tech skills gap

As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ramps up its focus on economic diversification, IT is set to play a pivotal role in the region’s evolution – but more must be done to get more women into the sector.

The growth of the IT sector continues to drive both innovation and employment in the Gulf, but women – as with all industries in the region – are under-represented in technology by significant margins.

In GCC countries, female participation in the labour force is about 27%, which is more than half the global average of just under 52%, according to the World Bank. The organisation also revealed that females, who comprise 41% of the overall GCC population, account for just 16% of the labour market.

“The region faces a general dearth of IT talent, which is needed to harness the technology revolution that will underpin new economic growth models,” said Miriam Burt, managing vice-president retail at Gartner CIO Group.

The tech talent shortage is exacerbated by the fact that women are under-represented in the GCC workforce in general, said Burt. “It is incumbent, therefore, on the tech industry to get to grips with solutions to tackle the challenge of engaging more women in the workforce,” she said. “This will be critical to the region’s transformation towards becoming a modern global business and commerce hub.”

Bringing more women into the global workforce has been shown to vastly improve national productivity and competitiveness. An International Monetary Fund report, published in late 2013, said that raising the female labour force participation rate to country-specific male levels would raise GDP in the US by 5%, in Japan by 9%, in the United Arab Emirates by 12%, and in Egypt by 34%.

Not-for-profit organisation Reach was founded in Dubai in 2014 to offer mentorships to local women in an effort to promote female leaders in the regional workforce. Pamela Chikhani, co-founder of Reach and corporate head of business development and communications at Dubai-based Oasis Investment Company, said the tech sector was a critical focus for her organisation.

“The Middle East has seen a series of important milestones that have been reached in the field of women’s empowerment. However, workplace gender bias and a shortage of female role models are among the main barriers faced by women working in the tech industry today,” she said.

“Although there is now more acceptance of women within the industry, there are also conscious and unconscious biases about their abilities and commitment that still exist. According to a global report by ISACA, an international professional association focused on IT governance, women lack mentors, role models and strong networking opportunities.”

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Chikhani said Reach had been established because “the call for mentorship grows daily, not only in tech, but all sectors”. She said addressing gender parity issues would enhance women’s roles as essential partners in building the region’s tech future.

Claire McPeak, director of communications at SAP MENA, agreed that mentorship for women should be at the heart of policy for female advancement in the industry, and she stressed that fast-tracking career progression must come from the top.

“By 2020, analysts are attesting that 50% of the workforce will be millennials,” said McPeak. “The Middle East has a young population, and a very talented pool of women, to tap into.”

Gartner’s Burt said the tech industry needed to investigate and take action, both in the short term and long term, to support the development of women in the industry. “These measures do not necessarily always mean positive discrimination in favour of women, but a willingness to invest in finding and nurturing top talent in both men and women in equal measure,” she said.

Burt suggested that companies should offer apprenticeships, more targeted training and the opportunity to increase hands-on knowledge. Like McPeak, she called for mentoring buddy systems and career coaching programmes to be set up. Other short-term measures she suggested included proactively nurturing women suitable for management roles, providing family-friendly HR policies and sponsoring innovation awards.

Create favourable conditions

In the longer term, Burt said all stakeholders, including governments, universities and tech businesses, were responsible for investing resources to create favourable socio-economic conditions for girls and women, as well as raising awareness of equal opportunities in the tech industry for men and women.

Margaret Adam, programme director for European channels and alliances at IDC, has lived and worked in the Middle East and Europe, giving her a good vantage point on what she called an “industry-wide issue”.

Adam stressed the importance of salary parity in the tech industry. “I think all companies should look at what Salesforce has done in this regard,“ she said. “It performed a global analysis of employee salaries to assess whether men and women doing the same or similar roles were paid equally. Once it had the results, it adjusted its salaries to the tune of $3m.”

She also recommended the implementation of return-to-work schemes. “One of the big challenges facing women is returning to work after having children,” she added. “PWC, for example, offers a 16-week internship programme to reintroduce women to the workforce. Deloitte has a similar programme, as do many others. I think there should be some lobbying to introduce similar programmes to all multinationals operating in the Middle East.”

The region’s women themselves will also be instrumental in the drive for change, both in the tech sector and the workforce generally.

Laudy Lahdo, general manager at Servcorp Middle East, said it was important to stay ahead of industry trends and adapt to change quickly. “It is important for women to get out there and learn from the industry, whether through networking events or workshops – knowledge-sharing is key,” she said.

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