Greater opportunities but entrenched stereotypes for Arab women in data science
Women make up nearly half of the Middle East and North Africa region’s 422 million people, the World Bank says, and the region’s women are finding roles in previously off-limits fields such as computer engineering and data science.
Data science is a sunshine sector. Last year, IBM predicted that the number of data science and analytics jobs worldwide would jump from 364,000 to 2.7 million by 2020.
“Data is the new oil,” said Mariette Awad, associate professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of the American University of Beirut. “If you have data, you have knowledge and that is powerful for business today.”
Clearly, there are immense opportunities in data science but there are also entrenched gender stereotypes. “There is still that boys’ club mentality in the field,” Awad said. “The higher you get up the pyramid, the lonelier it gets for women.”
Precise numbers for Arab women working in data science are not available but research by New York University Abu Dhabi’s Sana Odeh indicates they are keen to study engineering, computer science and other technology-related subjects. Odeh, clinical professor of computer science, said women make up 40-50% of the student cohorts in those subjects.
In the Palestinian territories, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon, women constitute a majority of university students in computer science and engineering courses. The US average for female enrolment in similar courses is 12%.
The interest in tech careers is prompted partly by the perception the data scientist’s office can be anywhere. Arab women data scientists say their jobs are family-friendly because they offer the flexibility to work from home.
The data scientist’s job is to develop solutions to problems. For this, he or she must be involved in the process of problem-solving from start to finish, from data collection to interpretation. This can be done at a computer anywhere.
Awad said data sciences are a good fit for women because “we love to tell stories and are great at thinking about the detail. This is where we can have an impact.” Indeed, data science allows women to play crucial roles in business.
However, data sciences infrastructure is woefully inadequate in the region. The capacity to store vast amounts of data and financial support for research remain a problem in the Arab world.
Awad pointed out that even when important data in large quantities is generated or super cool algorithms created, “we do not have the storage capacity to save all of this.”
While infrastructural issues need to be worked out, Arab women are gearing up to play a bigger role. In 2012, the Arab Women in Computing (ArabWIC) organisation was set up by Odeh and Kaoutar el-Maghraoui.
As prominent data scientists, they wanted to support and inspire Arab women in computing. ArabWIC, which has chapters in 17 countries, has linked more than 2,500 Arab female academics, students, entrepreneurs and industry professionals from all over the world through its annual conference.
In March, the American University of Beirut organised the second Women in Data Science conference in partnership with the Stanford Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering.
It featured Olivia Liao, data manager at Uber, and drew 715 participants to the venue and 580 online attendees.
Event coordinator Mirna Mekdashi said it was important to raise awareness about the field among Arab women and “to encourage and support women to enter STEM (or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and pursue a career path in data science and finally to shed light on female leading figures in the domain to further inspire and guide.”
Awad said such initiatives were crucial as women forge ahead in data sciences. “I do not want to be treated nicely or differently because I am a woman,” she said. “I want to be given opportunities because of my capabilities, competence and knowledge.”