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Arab women show the way with computer science aptitude

Learning trend that challenges social stereotypes discussed during NYUAD workshop

Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: There are more women students in the Arab world studying computer science than in the West, including the US, according to data compiled by researchers from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

The research was presented during the Women in Computing in the Arab World conference held at NYUAD recently. The conference discussed the challenges women in the Middle East face in the information technology sector.

Speaking to Gulf News, Sana Odeh, founder of Arab Women in Computing and Affiliated Faculty of Computer Science, NYUAD, and one of the researchers involved in the study, said that the statistics pointed to a positive trend among women in the Middle East, contrary to negative images and stories often associated with women in the region.

On women studying computer science in the Arab world, Sana said: “In the US, it’s 15-20 per cent, but in the Arab world it is 40 per cent. In countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it even reaches 70-80 per cent.”

Sana recalled that when she came to the UAE, she observed that the enrolment of women in computer science at universities was very high and decided to organise a workshop to discuss these trends. “In countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, women were sometimes in the majority. This is a tremendous picture that can contribute to an international debate. This is really positive and challenges stereotypes,” she added.

The next step in the research is to find out why so many women in the Middle East are opting for computer science. “We don’t want to speculate. We want to apply for a grant to be able to carry out a qualitative and quantitative study that will take a few years. Every country has different stories and contexts, so it’s important to analyse the trends and understand what’s going on,” Sana said.

While statistics from an academic standpoint point towards a positive trend, women in the IT workforce still face challenges, Sana said.

“They face discrimination when they join the workforce. We don’t have a well-developed technology sector, so you have old companies and stereotypes against women that they are not interested in these types of jobs, or they will eventually get married and leave,” she added.

Sana added that the situation is better in the UAE as the government is working hard to integrate women in the workforce in all fields, including information technology.


What women students say

Farah Shamout

Interdisciplinary doctorate degree programme in computer science specialising in big data and computational social networking, NYUAD


Why she chose the field

“I am passionate about innovation and scientific discovery and like to be intellectually challenged. Computer science is a driver of innovation in several other fields such as medicine, business and media. Technology has so much potential to develop in the Middle East and I aim to contribute to that development.”


On gender stereotypes

“It is time to break gender stereotypes. I want to create a new set of cultural factors that support and empower Arab women in pursuing their dreams and making their own decisions. This can be done by organising awareness campaigns for their families to change the perspective that computer science is a male domain. The second step is to promote the role of female role models in the region.”


Using the knowledge

“I want to contribute to the welfare of the Arab world through innovative ideas. I want to become a role model for other Arab women and increase equal opportunity in education and employment because success is not gender-specific. I hope to expand my knowledge and pass it on to other students, both men and women, who are passionate about technology. This field has put me through a steep learning curve that has helped me transform at both intellectual and professional levels.”


Bedoor Al Shebli

PhD in data analysis and computational social network at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology


Why she chose the field

“My mother was a programmer and systems analyst at Aramco, Saudi Arabia [where I am from originally]. I grew up surrounded by different technologies and I remember being taught basic programming by my mother when I was in grade school. I discovered I had a knack for it.”


On gender stereotypes

“Ironically, I didn’t realise it was a male domain until I did my master’s. Kuwait University is one of the few universities in the world where computer science is mostly a female domain. When I moved to the US for my master’s degree, I realised that I was the only girl in the lab. Lately, I’ve seen a change in the culture and more and more women with technological backgrounds growing in their careers. I believe it’s time we stopped considering it a male dominated field.”


Using the knowledge

“I look forward to working on my research and hopefully teach as I do enjoy passing on any knowledge I might gain. With the knowledge, I hope to reach a point in my career where I can motivate and inspire more females to join.”