For women in the 21st Century, staying silent on gender disparities in the workplace is quickly becoming a thing of the past. While women have made huge advances in industries like finance over the past 50 years – although glass ceilings remain in place even there – the tech industry still has a ways to go. That’s not to say that women in tech have shied away from initiating conversations about the challenges that come with working in a traditionally male-dominated industry – yet they still remain underrepresented in technical jobs. The urgency of the situation can be explained by the fact that only 26 percent of computing jobs in the United States are occupied by women, down from 36 percent more than two decades ago.
In Egypt, the tech industry is projected to make up a hefty 25 percent of the country’s GDP by 2020, yet women are rarely considered in plans for the industry’s future. While technology is increasingly being used by companies and the government itself as a means to find sustainable solutions to the country’s challenges, there remains a significant discrepancy in the representation of women in the industry.
According to one insider in the industry, around 35 percent of employees in tech companies are women. The significant difference in female to male employment in the field may be attributed to how the tech industry’s hostile culture discourages women. This exclusion of women from Egypt’s tech industry raises questions about the success of using technology to develop solutions without a major constituent in Egyptian society.
We sit down with three women in the industry to take a closer look at how hostility in the tech industry facilitates the under-representation of women, and how that can change to allow women to become part and parcel of the tech scene in Egypt.
“FireUp” The Machine
What began as a modest programing project by Bahia El Sharkawy a little over two years ago has grown into one of Egypt’s first full-fledged tech schools. El Sharkawy established an organization called ‘AlMakinah,’ Arabic for “The Machine,” to equip participants with the necessary tools to become tech-literate and encourage them to seek the opportunities that can come out of learning how to program. El Sharkawy hoped AlMakinah would address the gap in supply and demand between skilled job-seekers and software development vacancies through software training programs.
More than two years later, AlMakinah operates two bootcamps: FireUp, a 13-week full-time immersive software engineering bootcamp, and GearUp, an 80-hour introductory program for those with no background in programming.
When AlMakinah began holding FireUp, El Sharkawy noticed that the turnout of women in the fullstack FireUp bootcamp was rather low, which encouraged her to start an all-women version – GearUp – in August 2017. Before GearUp came to be, the first FireUp bootcamp had a male to female participation ratio of four to one. But after GearUp was established, El Sharkawy tells progrss, that more women began joining the program, pushing the bootcamp’s participant ratio to three to one.
Alongside working to help women become tech-literate, AlMakinah is encouraging women to pursue work in the tech industry in Egypt, in spite of widespread hostility towards women programmers.
“Coding can open new career opportunities for many women,” El Sharkawy tells progrss. “We have had single mothers join our programs who were looking for a freelance job [that] offers flexible hours, or work-from-home options, to help them provide for their families. We also met others who wanted to start their own projects and wanted their ideas to be tech-enabled. Not to mention, those who have studied a field far from engineering and wanted to shift careers.”
Despite such an empowering and educational climate surrounding programming and the tech industry in Egypt, Bahia El Sharkawy tells progrss that many women who join AlMakina’s programs are initially intimidated by the absence of women in tech. According to her, the fact that many of those who run the organization’s two programs are women is reassuring for participants, and that seeing women in the lead reaffirms their decision to enter the tech industry.
“In the end, it doesn’t depend on gender,” she says. “Coding is a skill that anyone can learn and develop. In fact, we have noticed that regardless of gender, the process of learning something new is challenging and, accordingly, we try to foster an environment that helps people grow and develop.”
“I am a woman; they don’t want to work with a woman”
In August 2017, a memo intended for internal circulation titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” was sent out by Google employee James Damore. Shortly after, the memo spread to the rest of the company and was leaked to the press, causing a large-scale media frenzy. The controversial memo detailed what Damore believes is the reason women are underrepresented in the tech industry which, according to him, is the biological difference between men and women. Although Damore’s controversial memo led to his termination from Google, his views are not novel nor are they rare in the industry.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) approximates that women make up close to 40 percent of the world’s workforce, coming close to 59 percent of some countries’ workforces. But only 21 percent of women in tech hold executive positions.
The women interviewed in a survey conducted by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) blamed the lack of representation of women in tech on the the fact that the industry is inherently dominated by men. Respondents also pointed to the absence of work-life balance for women in tech and the lack of encouragement for women to study tech-related disciplines as reasons for their underrepresentation in an otherwise booming industry.
Accordingly, it shouldn’t seem shocking that women in the tech industry continuously complain of the hostile culture they are faced with in the workplace. Nada Bebars, a 31-year-old mother, has been working in Egypt’s tech industry for 11 years. In an interview with progrss, Bebars adamantly confirms that this hostility is an obstacle for women working in tech. She believes that the pay gap, as it is elsewhere, is one of the industry’s most prominent obstacles. “They always think women are going to accept [anything] because they’re a working mom or because women aren’t [wanted] in the industry.”
Bebars also tells progrss that she has experienced this hostility when interviewing for positions in the industry. She says that many companies feel entitled to ask women when they plan on getting married and, if they’re married, when they plan on having kids. “In some places I’ve worked, I’ve experienced resistance [from colleagues] to the fact that I [am] a woman; they don’t want to work with women.”
And although Bebars believes these issues are omnipresent, she says they don’t stem from company administration, but, rather, middle-level managers who handle the hiring process and employee affairs.
“[Multinational] companies are trying to bring in this idea of gender equality to Egypt. Now women spend the night at the office,” Bebars says, explaining that the idea of women pulling an all-nighter at the office is often frowned upon in Egyptian society. “International companies are [now] trying to bring [women and men] together as equal employees.” Bebars adds that as much as the problem stems from the industry itself, it’s a cultural trope as well, making it harder to change – although she believes that change is feasible.
Women In Tech: You Don’t Belong Here
Representation and inclusion of women in the tech industry does not just supplement economic growth; it also creates an environment that encourages women to study and work in the tech field and normalizes women as equally competent ‘techies’ as their male counterparts.
Women in tech bring perspective not just to the workplace, but also to how products are made, who they’re for, and how technology is used. In the U.S., women occupy only 8.5 percent of architectural and engineering jobs, meaning they are largely excluded from the product design and manufacturing process. Making sure that women are included at both ends of the process is essential for fostering an industry that is knowledgeable of and caters to men and women equally.
Even women who immerse themselves in tech as a discipline and aspire to become pioneers in the industry in Egypt agree that men make it increasingly challenging to do so. Zeina, a 23-year-old Computer Science graduate, talks to progrss about her experience as one of the few women in her discipline.
Zeina, like Bebars, says that she has come in contact with the obstacles put in place by a culture that doesn’t encourage women in tech. “When we were young, we were raised to believe girls play with [dolls] and boys are into video games, computers, and hardware,” she says. “There’s this patronizing stereotype [that] sees women’s work as easy work or work that requires more presentation skills and looking good, and [not] work that requires thinking.”
Zeina tells progrss that, during her time at university, one of her professors singled her out in a class that had a majority of men and few women. “There were girl architectural students who were outside and were finishing up a project, but were very loud and he was angry. So he decided to [take it out on one of the girls] in class, which was me,” she says. ““Why did you major in something hard?” [he said]. “You could have majored in something like architecture like the girls outside and had a lot more fun and made earrings or whatever instead of putting yourself through hell. We all know [Computer Science] is for boys and not for girls, it’s a tough major.” This kind of intimidation, according to Zeina, is what makes being part of the tech industry in Egypt – as a woman – difficult.
Zeina also describes to progrss how the tech industry could be different for women. During her tenure at a prominent tech firm, it astonished her to see so many women holding senior positions. She says to progrss that she wasn’t surprised, but, rather, delighted to see so many women in higher positions since women are not usually given authority over men in the industry. “I did see women in the tech field in higher positions than I expected, and I [accepted] that I was genuinely surprised, because I never imagined I could [work at] a reputable IT company and find a woman in a high position [with male subordinates].”
Boys-Only No More
The future for women in tech in Egypt, however, is hardly bleak – even according to the women interviewed. Bebars thinks the cultural tropes that exacerbate the disparity between men and women aren’t impossible for women to change. “It’s the easiest industry to change this concept in,” she says. “Because, for us, there are things that we can change [that will be] more acceptable.
The exclusion of women in tech and related fields only perpetuates the loss of talent, potential, and passion that women in Egypt have for working in the tech industry. The industry still has a long way to go to normalize Egyptian women working in tech in order to consider it entirely inclusive and, arguably, successful. In tech, the inclusion of women facilitates not only a wider pool of ideas to fix what is broken, but also works towards making society more inclusive and accessible by making the tech field itself as such.
*Some of the names of individuals used in this article have been changed to protect their identities.