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.