We can do IT

The world has witnessed so much progress over the past century that fields such as technology and medicine are virtually unrecognisable one decade to the next. But one area where progress has been slow is the empowerment of women and the situation is the same in the supposedly progressive IT industry. This is, especially true, it would seem, in the Middle East region. We go in search of the few women who have made it in a world where men still seem to be calling all the shots.

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By  Vijaya George Published  November 20, 2002

I|~||~||~|It has always been called a man’s world — at least, for as far back as we can remember. Centuries of social and cultural conditioning had relegated the woman to the home and shut out any hopes that she might have nurtured of sitting behind a desk and managing a business or a group of people. Over the last few decades, however, there have been signs of change in the male:female ratio at the workplace — not enough to tip the balance, but sufficient for us to have begun to take notice.

Of the 140 million women that populate the Arab world, about 5% have stepped out of their homes to work. A handful of this group has made their way into an IT industry. But, at last, “there are more women coming now” according to Kuwaiti national Lamya Al-Tabtebai, general manager of IT and operations, Burgan Bank, referring to the number of women who are graduating from local universities every year with specialised degrees.

Armed with a degree in computer engineering from Kuwait University and a masters from the University of Southern California, Al-Tabtebai worked for four years with Kuwait’s State Audit Bureau. Then she applied for a professional certification called CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor). “I was the first female in Kuwait to get this certification,” she explains. With that, Al-Tabtebai joined Burgan Bank, Kuwait, in 1998 as audit manager. Two years later, she was asked to head the bank’s Y2K project and today she manages one of the bank’s most important operations — IT. “This is like the kitchen or the engine of the bank where we process transactions, run, develop and improve the systems for Burgan. This engine needs to be oiled continually and upgraded because the operations part of Burgan is heavily dependent on technology,” says Al-Tabtebai.
IT was Burgan’s road to success. As a small finance house in 1998, Burgan could not compete with the older banks in Kuwait on traditional grounds. So the bank directed its capital towards information technology and chose to focus on some core competencies that would enable it to service its customers better. This enabled it to grow from a small office to a bank with 14% market share. As GM of IT operations, Al-Tabtebai had a significant role to play at the bank. “I have spent four years here. I have grown to love this environment because, here, ideas flow freely,” says Al-Tabtebai, who believes that more challenges await her at Burgan. “Burgan Bank is still very young. So, it is full of ideas and full of potential and there is so much more to be done.”

||**||II|~||~||~|But Al-Tabtebai is not a freak case in Kuwait. Even within financial organisations such as Burgan Bank and the National Bank of Kuwait, there are several women who enjoy top management positions. In the National Bank of Kuwait, of the 120 strong IT workforce, around 25% are women. Golnar Mahmoudi, head of Internet and e-business at the National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) says: “Previously, women only filled vacancies in the health and education sector. Now Kuwaiti women are all gung ho. They are getting into IT and they are willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard.”

An Iranian by birth and a US citizen, Mahmoudi graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Mass Communication. After her marriage, she came to Kuwait where she began work as a researcher at NBK’s marketing department in October 1992, right after Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq. While there, she was instrumental in establishing the bank’s Service Quality Unit to serve NBK’s customers better. In 1999, when NBK decided to go electronic, Mahmoudi’s extensive research background made her the perfect candidate to head the bank’s e-business section. Since then, NBK has gone from strength to strength, gradually introducing one online service at a time based on customer needs. Today, it boasts of having one of the most successful and comprehensive range of electronic services delivered through different channels (such as the internet, WAP and SMS) in both Arabic as well as English.

Unlike Al-Tabtebai and Mahmoudi who completed their education abroad, there are others like Nada Mansour, who got her degree in Maths and Accounting from Kuwait University and trained as IT programmer at the Commercial Bank of Kuwait. Today Mansour works as senior systems analyst at the National Bank of Kuwait and takes care of the switching system that manages the ATM and point of sale.

“From what I have seen, women seem to dominate the scientific field,” says Al-Tabtebai. “You will see many Kuwaiti women taking up computer science and engineering in our colleges, while most of our men prefer business subjects.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Although people in other parts of the world believe that the rights of women in the Middle East have been suppressed, some women in the IT industry profess to have enjoyed greater freedom than their counterparts in the West. Al-Tabtebai says she has seen the women of her country enjoy greater freedom in “day to day life” than she has witnessed in the United States. “In the US, we saw that there were different pay structures for men and women holding similar posts. But here in Kuwait, gender has never determined a person’s salary in either the private or public sector. Granted, we are not part of the parliament. But still, where salary is concerned, everything goes by qualifications and skills.” Mansour endorses that fact: “You can make decisions and you can be promoted depending on how good you are at your work.”

But Gigliola Graziani, category and marketing manager, Personal Systems Group at HP-Middle East, puts things in perspective. “There are more women in the industry now. Still, even now, if I look at an organisation, the proportion of men and women in the management level is not even 60:40. In HP, the head is a woman. But if you go to an EMEA meeting, you will not get a fair split; you might get 80:20.” But she goes on to clarify that it all depends on which part of the IT industry you are in. “First, I was in a company that was related to travel. So, there, you see more women. Next, I moved to the semiconductor industry, where there are more men in the geek side. Here, I am working on the PC side where, again, there are more women.”
Either way, Graziani believes that “being a woman, you have to prove yourself twice as hard. Respect does not come to you on a plate. You can’t take it for granted unlike for men, to whom it is given upfront when they are hired for the job.” She relates how hard it was to come by an opportunity several years ago, when she stepped out of college with a masters degree in International Marketing at 21. “When you are young and good looking, people don’t associate you with intelligence,” says Graziani. “And then, if you are a woman, it doesn’t help at all.” Since then, Graziani has shifted quite a few jobs before she landed one at HP in France five years ago as area category manager for networking and services. Her work included covering International sales and marketing for Europe and the Middle East.

One year ago, she was called to take over as market development manager in Dubai covering the Middle East on the server and networking side. After the Compaq-HP merger, she was promoted to her current position.

But Graziani has come to realise that if there is a downside to being a woman in a male-dominated workplace, there are good things as well. “Women are very good at managing different tasks at one time — maybe because that is how we manage things at home. And we also pay a lot of attention to detail that men often don’t think of. Like I ask my child, ‘Did you eat properly?’ This helps us immensely at our workplace.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Soha Kamal, professional services director— MEA, Microsoft Business Solutions, and Belgium-based security engineer Alla Bezroutchko, who works for security solutions company Scanit, both concur with Graziani. “Women are more meticulous and patient about things. So, if you look at women in the IT industry, they are more into software development and consulting or management roles, where they will excel because they can see things through. You will see hardly any women in hardware development and networking, which are short term goals and most men prefer this because they like to achieve things quickly and move on,” says Kamal.

Kamal has been in the IT profession for over a decade now covering project management, business consulting, and Information Technology management for companies such as PricewaterHouse in Egypt and Arthur Andersen in Dubai. In 2001, she took over as MEA professional services director for Microsoft Business solutions, where she is responsible for ERP solutions, product strategy and support, presales and consulting. Kamal, who hails from Egypt and majored in Computer Science and Electronics from the American University in Egypt, says she has not come across many women in IT in Dubai. “From what I have seen, there are more women working in IT in Egypt. In our own class, we were 12 girls and one boy. But I personally believe that Egypt is more receptive to women than Dubai. Once a woman establishes her credibility, she gets proper treatment,” explains Kamal.

All countries in the Middle East, however, do not receive women well. Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are said to be making greater efforts to bring skilled women to the limelight. The oft-quoted example in the UAE is Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, CEO of online market place Tejari.com, who returned to her country after getting a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of California. After a brief stint at Datamation, primarily as a software programmer and several other jobs, she got her break at the Dubai Ports Authority as senior manager at the Information Systems department. DPA is said to have one of the most sophisticated e-systems in place today. From there, she was chosen by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai Ports and Customs to head Tejari.com.

There are others like Omani national Hind Bahwan, chairperson of Bahwan Cybertek, who has quietly embarked into the word of business and won awards such as IT Woman of the Year and Young E-achiever.
However, in places like Saudi Arabia, there is little scope for a woman to succeed. Bezroutchko, who has conducted hacking courses in the Emirates and worked on projects for clients in the UAE on behalf of ScanIT, cannot teach clients in Saudi Arabia. She can only enter the Kingdom if she is accompanied by a male relative. Apparently, this law holds true for all foreign women.

||**||V|~||~||~|Most women we interviewed agreed that there were not many women in the workforce, but few recognised signs of gender disparities at the workplace. However, phrases such as “appreciate being empowered”, “enjoy more freedom” and “I don’t believe in having somebody give us our rights easily; we must earn it” seem to suggest otherwise. Dubai-based IT journalist Carla Atkins (name changed by request) firmly believes that sexist ideologies are practiced in most work environments globally: “Any woman who believes that she experiences no sexism in her professional life is either in an enviable position, or else — and more likely — is simply so accustomed to sexism that she just takes it for granted. She is not consciously aware of its ubiquity because it is so entrenched and ingrained in our every social realm. The fact is, we are taught from the instant we are born to see men and women as different — not as individuals, but as two distinct personality ‘types’. So when we see a woman we are inclined to attribute a whole set of prejudiced ideas about who she is, what she wants, what is important to her, how she operates and what she is capable of. Rarely do these prejudices mean neutral or positive things for a female in the work environment.”

Some women have come to recognise that there are differences in treatment at the workplace but most of them have either come to take it in their stride or worked hard to earn the respect of their male counterparts. Kamal of Microsoft Business Solutions admits that male subordinates have sometimes found it difficult to take instructions from her because she is a woman. “But if you establish your credibility over time, then you won’t face these problems,” she says. And as Graziani reiterates, you can do it but you have to push yourself twice as much.

Atkins decries such work environments as toxic and questions why women should be mismeasured in the first place. “It doesn’t make sense to confer unfair advantage or disadvantage on somebody simply by virtue of what they got by the roll of the chromosomal dice,” she says. “There are times when my colleague and I go out to interview somebody, and I ask the questions and he is given the answers. This kind of attitude clearly frustrates women, disadvantages them and hinders business as well. It means great talent goes untapped; it means people’s own scientifically and empirically unsound ideas about men and women as two distinct groups get in the way of everyone’s development and experience. In terms of the economics, efficiency and advancement of businesses, this kind of ideology is also destructive.”
In short, Atkins recommends that human resource managers and head hunters deconstruct gender and hire people solely on the basis of their qualifications and skills. This approach, according to her, makes more business sense and also ensures that the best is hired.

||**||VI|~||~||~|However, many people (including women) question if such an attitude could possibly encourage more women to enter the workplace. Ideally, to right the imbalance caused by years of social conditioning, companies need to take a more open approach to hiring women, according to Sharif Khan, HR manager, Microsoft Middle East, who thinks that hiring women only on the basis of skill will stand to their disadvantage. “Microsoft really wants to encourage hiring women. So right now, we are looking at how many women are being hired in the local industry. If one out of every 20 people in the Dubai IT industry is a woman, Microsoft is looking to hire one in every five,” says Khan. In the last 12 months, 20% of the women Microsoft Middle East has hired are women. “This is a rather aggressive strategy but we are working towards it. So if we plan to recruit women on the basis of skills and qualifications, we are not even going to meet this objective. Rather, we are looking at talent and potential.”

Meanwhile, 70% of the interns Microsoft has taken in this time are women. The software titan has invested $35,000 in each intern taking them around the world and guiding them through a formal development programme on the company’s latest technology. Moreover, in an attempt to ensure that the company is hiring the best talent and to avoid excluding certain categories, Khan claims that Microsoft carries out broad-based recruitment campaigns in the Middle East. And when it does find an exceptional candidate, it goes forward and creates a position in the company for her. He cites the example of a Saudi national who has been recruited and relocated to Dubai to run the regional telesales operations. “If women make up X portion of the population, and they are highly educated and have potential, it does not make business sense to exclude them,” says Khan. “If we do, we don’t get to hire the best.” As a result, Microsoft claims to have laid its hands on some of the best women in the world.

Another IT recruitment manager recommends “job sharing” as a possible solution in the Middle East. “If national women have cultural constraints, companies could consider hiring two women and allowing them to share the job, where one person comes in the morning, and the other in the evening. However, he states that the market is not in that state of maturity yet; “not even companies such as Microsoft are ready for it because they are not ready to do anything that might not make business sense.”

In the meantime, there is no doubt that there are currently only a handful of women in the IT industry. But a huge pool of well-educated women is emerging from colleges across the Arab world every year, and a good many of them possess the skills to contribute well to the IT industry. Will social barriers and cultural checks continue to hinder their progress or will we see more women occupying senior IT positions that match their skill? The feedback is mixed. Only time, as they say, will tell.||**||

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