Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are working to empower women to enter the labor market by implementing reforms that will incentivize and protect them. According to our published World Bank "Women, Business, and the Law" report, these reforms include: preventing discrimination based on gender in employment and access to credit, and the dismissal of pregnant women. Over the last several years due to many reforms, women’s employment has not only increased, but they are being more embraced in traditionally male-dominated technical sectors.
This year, the UN’s International Women’s Day theme is focusing on “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” As the World Bank continues to support women’s economic inclusion across the region, we spoke to three successful women from the GCC who are leading examples for women across the Arab world on how they came to work in the digital sector:
Yasmeen Al-Sharaf is the Director of the FinTech and Innovation Unit at the Central Bank of Bahrain. She said that since the FinTech sector is a relatively new sector, it is offering a great opportunity to dismiss old gender stereotypes and normalize women’s inclusion in the field. "As a woman, I feel excited to be part of this fast evolving and growing FinTech sector and it gives me great joy to be able to prove to other women that it can be done," she added.
Al-Sharaf worked at the Central Bank of Bahrain, where she spent around 11 years within the Licensing Directorate. She became interested in FinTech when she saw the power of technology causing a seismic shift in financial services. Having a forward thinking and progressive leadership was also a motivator to never settle for the status quo and embrace change. So in 2017, she was asked to lead on setting up the FinTech & Innovation Unit at the Central Bank of Bahrain, the first initiative of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The digital sector provides more flexibility for women to work remotely and gain more control over work/life/family balance. But as Al-Sharaf says, "to close the gender parity within the digital sector, companies should design their strategies around the notion of diversity. They must invest in employee development to ensure that women are given equal learning and training opportunities as well as equipping them with more basic technical skills, such as coding. In short, women need to be encouraged to acquire these skills and use them as a stepping-stone into the industry."
Al-Sharaf’s future goal is to have a leading role in Bahrain’s national mission to position itself as a leading FinTech hub on the global map. She believes that GCC women are becoming increasingly active in all fields. “We are starting to see more women leaders in the public arena – the recent increase in Bahraini women representation within the ministerial cabinet is testament to this,” she said.
Sara Waslallah Althubaiti, is Ph.D. student who is preparing the DNA library to be used for a study on developing an artificial intelligence system that reveals genes that drive tumor growth. Althubaiti is analyzing how biomedical concepts have been used in predicting cancer survival probability for different cancer types. AlThubaiti is studying Computer Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
Althubaiti has always been interested in the digital sector. “My generation was at the forefront to experience the age of technological progress,” she said. “All these technical advancements fascinated me as a child and kept me thinking; I would often ask my mother questions about their construction and operating principles, wearing a perplexed look on my face. This led to the development of my love for technology.”
The field of computer science gave her the chance to pursue her two passions, solving issues and creating engaging experiences. “I can come up with ideas through coding, create and ideate potential solutions, and then put them into practice to tackle user-specific issues.” she added.
Althubaiti was inspired by women in the digital field. “If we look at history, we will see dozens of women scientists who have emerged in the field of computer science, and perhaps the most prominent of them is Ada Lovelace, who is considered the first computer programmer, and the first computer programming language was named after her,” she told us.
Now Althubaiti gets to research applying artificial intelligence systems and developing machine learning-based methods for different life sciences such as medicine, and notably, working on predicting candidate driver genes for different cancer types.
Khawla Hammad is the CEO of Takalam, an online psychology app. Upon her return from studying in the US, she faced a choice between joining the workforce or following her dream in building a business that solves a real-life issue and creates a social impact; an app to help people with their mental well-being. Takalam, which is Arabic for ‘talk,’ is a digital platform for mental well-being, with a personalized, convenient, and private access to mental well-being solutions. “It was hard resisting the comfort and security that came with being “employed” but I decide to take the risk and see where it takes me, and it turned out to be the best decision I made,” she said.
The idea of Takalam came about from her personal experience when she found difficulties to find such service. “Therefore, I decided to create a solution, not only to serve my own need but to also serve the need of over 100 million individuals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, who, according to the World Health Organization, suffer from depression or anxiety without accessible mental healthcare due to stigma, affordability, or logistical limitations.”
She noted the resistance to the idea of mental health services in the community due to the stigma around it. But what made her app succeed was the attention that mental health got at the beginning of the pandemic where governments, companies, and communities launched awareness initiatives and ways for people to cope with the mental difficulties from the pandemic and the lockdowns. It was a golden opportunity to accelerate and launch this meaningful technology and service.
Her goal is to grow Takalam to become the go-to mobile application for mental well-being in the MENA region and beyond. “We will transform the way psychotherapy is delivered as we complete our R&D projects and launch a comprehensive screening system that is powered by AI, that will allow for faster and more accurate results in diagnosing symptoms of depression or anxiety,” she said.