Bridging the gender gap and empowering women in ICT

By Leila Serhan, Regional General Manager at Microsoft

 “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world", said Charles Malik, Lebanese philosopher and diplomat. He was talking about the importance of gender equality, which is something Microsoft takes very seriously, especially in the Middle East where the gender gap can be wide. It is also an important consideration considering that researchers have found that nations which elect women to their highest office see a GDP increase of up to 6.9% greater than when a male leader is elected. So in the spirit of International Women’s Day, which took place on 8 March, with the theme, ‘Make It Happen’, we wanted to highlight the importance empowering women in the tech space and some of the ways in which we are working to make this happen in the Middle East.

We have some catching up to do

Current trends show that women’s participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art and design and mathematics (STEAM) is lagging behind their male counterparts – women only make up 30% of the ICT workforce worldwide. This is a concern because it is these fields that are driving progress and economic growth. It is equally important that women participate in the fields of art and design, added to the original STEM fields, because these areas are essential for innovation, which is another imperative for growth.

Microsoft is an ardent supporter of women in the STEAM fields, and as a result we are involved in several partnerships and initiatives to give them access to these fields and upskill them to succeed.

Empowering young women at all stages of their careers

As part of our YouthSpark Initiative, we launched Aspire Women – a three-year program with the aim of empowering 100 000 young women in the Middle East and Africa through youth leadership, economic empowerment and civic engagement. This includes learning how to code, mentorship programs, drives to employ women from disadvantaged and underserved communities, fostering young women startups and developing volunteer programs, women policy makers and NGO engagement.

Then there are several projects we are working on to further encourage young female students to chase a career in the technology sector. Our DigiGirlz campaign runs globally and since its launch in 2000 has engaged with 19 000 female students in the form of workshops and one-day events, where industry professionals interact with participants and discuss innovation in technology and opportunities in the ICT sector.

Beyond the student realm, it is also important to help female entrepreneurs in the ICT space to grow their businesses. In conjunction with the Association of Women Entrepreneurs (AFEM) in Morocco and INWI, our Cloud Startup Academy is doing just that. The idea of the Academy is to help young women launch innovative startups based on the latest cloud technology, along with strengthening their skills in communication, technology, entrepreneurship and marketing.

The proof is in the success stories

While these programs are ongoing, it is encouraging to see some of the success stories that have come out of initiatives like these already. For example, a young Egyptian women called Neema went from being a housewife to an entrepreneur when she participated in financial training as part of the Aspire Women program and gained the confidence to expand her small family business. Also in Egypt, Taheya Nabil got career guidance from an initiative called ‘Masr Ta3mal’, which provides free courses and employment guidance services that aims at empowering youth via required consultancy, education and jobs. She ended up fulfilling a dream to dub cartoon movies.

In Jordan, I recently met with young female Microsoft Student Partners who, through their passion for coding, went to public schools to tell young girls how they can change the world through software development as part of our "Hour of Code" initiative.

And there is no stopping women like this who want to succeed and still have a family life, too. One of our Computer Science Researchers in Cairo, Riham Mansour, is carving out a successful career and has won several awards for her work, while being a mother of two sons. It is women like Riham that are the role models for future successful women in ICT.

We believe that young women like these have a huge opportunity to fill the growing demand for ICT and business skills across the Middle East. It is imperative for these young women to acquire the necessary knowledge and skill sets to take advantage of these career opportunities, not only to participate in the global economy and create a more balanced gender distribution in the ICT space, but also because it empowers them to leverage technology to improve their daily lives and uplift their communities. So we urge Arab and global government, businesses and academic institutions to get involved in making it happen for our young women.

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