There is a revolution going on in the Middle East and North Africa, but it's not the political upheaval of the Arab Spring -- it's the emergence of women as leaders in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, an epochal shift for a region where women have long been marginalized.
The U.S. State Department is using its TechWomen program to foster that change. The program pairs dozens of women who work in technology in the region, known by the shorthand MENA, with their American counterparts in Silicon Valley for weeks of mentorship. In essence, American diplomacy is encouraging these women to use the knowledge they gain in the U.S. to create positive social change in their home countries.
“Currently we are building the new Egypt, and I believe [the] most needed resources now are knowledge and science,” said Heba Hosny, a quality assurance engineer who took part in this year’s exchange program.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the TechWomen initiative in 2010, in response to President Barack Obama’s call for an expansion in educational exchanges in the areas of entrepreneurship, science and innovation. The pilot program began the following year, bringing a select number of women to America for a monthlong professional peer mentorship. Their American counterparts also had the opportunity to travel to the various participating countries for networking and workshops.
Big companies like Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Canada-based Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) support the State Department’s program. TechWomen is also supported by Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Microsoft Inc. (NASDAQ:MSFT), NetApp (NASDAQ:NTAP) and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), as well as the Cherie Blair Foundation for women, among others.
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Nearly 80 MENA women have already gone through the program, and dozens from sub-Saharan Africa are expected to participate next year, said Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs.
“The concept Hillary Clinton had was smart power -- using every tool, including technology, to bring people together,” Stock said. “Her idea was to empower women and girls and bring them together. These networks of women are going to work together forever.”
The MENA women in the program also got a firsthand view of how American women balance their work and home life, an important consideration for women from many countries in that region, where female work outside the home is rare.
“The most amazing thing I discover there is that even [though] we were from different countries, different regions and religions, all the women have the same problem: to do their best to balance between work and family,” said Farida Joumade Mansouri, who heads the Organic Framing Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Development in Tunisia. “Personally I have no problem to go ahead in my work, but I think that in MENA countries, a woman who works is a very busy one all the time, because she hasn’t all the resources and facilities available to an American woman.”
Audrey Van Belleghem is the director of strategic programs at NetApp, a multinational computer storage and data management company based in the U.S. She served as mentor to a participant from Morocco, where the illiteracy rate is approximately 40 percent. It's even higher in rural areas, and among women.
“In that environment, she needs to pursue technological advances such as cloud infrastructure, data center stability, and she’s an entrepreneur as well, a role model for women in her country,” Van Belleghem said. “She was a truly amazing person to mentor. She did take a year off for her first child, and I was touched when she mentioned after spending time with me (I have 3 children) that she did not feel she would have to take a year off again for this second baby. She is planning to better balance her time, now that she has seen examples of women working and balancing a family life.”
Yet, like they are in the Middle East, women are underrepresented in STEM jobs in America, though they make up half the workforce.
A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that in America, women fill almost half the jobs in the economy, but less than 25 percent of those are STEM jobs. However, women with STEM jobs made 33 percent more than those in other jobs. And the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM careers, according to the study.
For Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, educated women are an asset to families in the Middle East and North Africa, because it doesn’t put children at a disadvantage.
Panetta, also a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said that when it comes to the workforce in the Middle East, the problem is more cultural.
“They have to be able to see what they’ve been missing by not including women, and what the country is losing,” she said. “With 50 percent of your country being women, you’re not utilizing that workforce. You want to keep your country on the cutting edge of technology.”
Growing up in Lebanon, one of the Middle East's more Westernized countries, Jessica Obeid was used to seeing women working. She often wondered how women found the time to balance a good career and a family.
Today, Obeid is an energy engineer at the Community Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Demonstration Program for the Recovery of Lebanon. She has one bit of advice for girls and women who dream of being tech leaders:
“When I decided to pursue an engineering degree, there wasn’t one single person who encouraged me to do that,” Obeid said. “The world needs people courageous enough, determined enough and smart enough to make it better,” she added. “And women have it all and much more. I would say, never let anyone put you down, follow your dream and you’ll figure along the way how to get there.”
Start the slideshow to learn more about 10 of the emerging women techies in MENA.