Lebanon News

ArabWIC conference tackles gender issues in tech sector

(The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The technology sector’s culture rather than genetics is to blame for women’s underrepresentation in tech jobs, Sana Odeh, a professor of computer science at New York University, said Thursday at the fifth annual Arab Women in Computing conference in Beirut. “Women enrollment is almost the majority in the field [of computer science] in the Arab world,” said Odeh, the conference’s first keynote speaker. However, she pointed to low retention rates for women in the industry as evidence there was an issue of culture over capability.

“To be in this field you have to really have the best scores in your country, so [the women] have to be really great mathematical minds.”

Odeh’s comments came after a recent scandal at search engine giant Google when an engineer, who has since been fired, published a memo decrying initiatives to increase the number of women in the company, among other issues.

Among the engineer’s complaints, he said genetic traits were the reason women fare badly in technology jobs generally and leadership roles within Google specifically.

“It’s horrifying for me to be hearing [about the memo] at a time like this. I’m happy that Google finally came out and fired this person,” Odeh told The Daily Star on the sidelines of the conference.

Women face discrimination when they apply for tech jobs, the professor explained – and the primary reason they face a hard time securing tech jobs is because of the culture currently perpetuated in the male-dominated industry.

“They are making it very difficult for women to make it in this field and that’s really a problem,” Odeh said.

But it’s not only in Silicon Valley that women face problems gaining access to the tech sector, according to Lebanon’s Minister of State for Administrative Development Inaya Ezzeddine. “In Lebanon, we have quite a big proportion of female higher degree holders – maybe a little bit more than 50 percent – but they do not appear in the work market or the high-ranking positions of IT companies,” Ezzeddine told The Daily Star after her keynote speech at the conference. “We cannot afford to have more than half the society sit outside and not participate in the decision-making and the future of this area,” she said.

President of the American University of Beirut Fadlo Khuri, too, noted in his speech the healthy representation of women in the classroom and their woeful underrepresentation in the office.

The Arab world has a remarkably high rate of female enrollment in university computer science classes, he said, but only a quarter of those women graduates end up landing an job in the field.

“Women do at least as well as men [in science, technology, engineering and math], but then when they go [and] apply for a job they’re still drastically underrepresented,” Khuri said.

“This shouldn’t surprise us,” he said, “it should disturb us.”

Every speaker at the event highlighted the central importance of the tech industry in Lebanon’s job market. Job opportunities are booming in the sector, Khuri said, while speaker Jennifer Olmsted – an academic who had worked on a survey looking at women in the tech industry – noted that a significant number of women feel positively about starting their own tech businesses.

Kaoutar El-Maghraoui, an operating systems research scientist, spent time elaborating on the exciting new technologies she and her colleagues at global tech leader IBM are working on, and how these technologies will change the world.

The speeches inspired some of the young women sitting in the auditorium – like AUB student Marie Belle Kassouf. “[The conference is] good – [it shows] women are able to get involved and gives women a chance to show what they’re capable of. You have a chance to show yourself,” she said. “It’s not going to stop after we graduate.”

But if the culture of the male-dominated job sector does not change, the implications will be much broader than just a lack of jobs for women, Odeh warned.

“If women are not going to be part of this field, that means that their priorities, their issues, their focus are not going be resolved or dealt with because computer science is at the center of solving many of these issues,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 11, 2017, on page 3.

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