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Women in IT
By Samia Jubran Totah
It is not common in one’s life to have the opportunity of accepting a regional award. But when my company’s name and my company’s product were called to receive an award in an Arab Information & Communications Technologies (ICT) conference for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries in Beirut last November, I never felt more rewarded as a Palestinian company, developing a Palestinian product, representing the Palestinian IT sector, and showing the Arab World where the Palestinian business women are today. As Palestinian people living under occupation we are always regarded by our Arab brothers and sisters for enduring the living conditions and the daily obstacles and challenges in our lives. We always feel the bond and the sympathy that exists between the people, but we hardly feel and see the respect that I felt so wholeheartedly on that evening.
The latest survey completed by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics for 2006 shows that a mere 5.4% of the total establishments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are owned by women. Another survey for 2008 suggested that out of the total salaried work force only 16% are females. The same abides for the ICT sector where only 14% of the total ICT professionals working in different ICT establishments are female. When looking at these statistics one may realize that the representation of women in Palestinian businesses as well as in the paid workforce is extremely low when compared to regional and international averages, and requires immense upgrading.
The IT sector is one of the most promising sectors in the Palestinian economy. There is a significant 46% growth in the number of ICT firms in the last three years. There is also a high percentage of female ICT graduates from our Palestinian higher education institutions reaching, in 2006, a total of 35%, according to the latest assessment conducted by the Palestinian Information Technology Association (PITA). Nonetheless, Hebron University reached a rocketing percentage of 75% female graduates of the total ICT graduates for the same year.
As IT is a fairly new industry to Palestine and to the world, this could be an indicator that many women choose this field of study as a challenge to change the traditional role that Palestinian women played for so long. Here came a new career that would require less interaction with people and that might serve as a secure haven for women a high percentage of whom are banned from an open social life and where cultural barriers exist. Could this be an industry where true gender equality is evident and no special physical criteria is required to do the job that may give preference to a man over a woman? I would like to think of it as such, because women have been calling for equal opportunity positions for so long now. But the question remains: how can we all work on continuously increasing these numbers and to encourage women to enter a very high-skilled profession?
Although all sectors in the Palestinian economy suffer from the movement restrictions imposed on our society, IT can be tackled differently if all resources are put to use. The IT sector depends mainly on the management of minds and skills; it depends on a continuous upgrade of one’s skills and on learning new technologies in an ever-changing sector. IT Management needs to work on encouraging these minds to excel and expand and to prepare a healthy working environment for its staff. Nonetheless, if one is to step back a little and consider the possibility of allowing programmers and software engineers to work remotely from the location of their home, whether that may be in an isolated village or in a different town where checkpoints and closures restrict the movement of people, one can see the added value of such a profession for women. Not only are they given the opportunity to overcome the restrictions imposed by occupation, but overcoming a great number of restrictions imposed by their role and by the society where limited social freedom is given to women. In a male dominant society not all the professions are considered approachable to women, and in a society where the great majority lives in small environments and where the mere fact of getting out of the house on a daily basis poses a great challenge to many women, IT professions will provide an open window that did not exist before.
If women are given the chance to work remotely from the security of their home, provided that the appropriate tools are available, what will stop them from achieving their dreams and excelling in an IT profession? After all, success is achieved by what you have accomplished and not by what you can accomplish. I have been working in the IT field for twenty years now, and during the course of my work, we have utilized the communication tools available such as the Internet to allow our employees to work from their homes at times when curfews and closures were imposed. I can proudly say that the efficiency of the programmers was just as good developing software from their homes as while sitting at their desks in the office, if not better. Then why can we not follow this approach for regular working days when the obstacle this time is not the imposed curfew or the closure or the unsettling situation but the imposed limitations from society and culture on women?
It was shown in a recent study of the ICT sector that the largest percentage of women employees in ICT firms was programmers, followed by designers and system analysts. Since the majority of the women in these companies are already seeking programming positions linked directly to their education and their skills, then it is worth instilling this new approach in management. Palestine is a country lacking natural resources; therefore, its best chance of expanding could very well be the investment in intellectual property.
One might say that our National Authority is aware of the importance of this investment, since human resource development and training is considered a capital investment only for the IT industry. Businesses are also aware of a great number of vocational training institutions and donor-funded programmes geared towards enhancing IT skills and preparing women to enter the work force. Nevertheless more efforts are needed to create an approachable environment and more work is required to utilize the Internet era and the availability of various communication tools to allow room for women to enter this challenging, yet highly rewarding, profession. All players in the IT industry, including the National Authority, the IT associations, the private and public sectors, and higher education institutions, have a responsibility to enhance this sector. And all have to realize the great importance this sector has on developing the Palestinian economy and the role women should undertake in IT in our country.
Samia Jubran Totah is Managing Partner at Bisan Systems Ltd. in Ramallah - a software house specializing in Financial Management Applications. Samia is a founding member of the Business Women Forum in Palestine, and a mother of two girls. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Week in Palestine, March 2009