by Andrea Benito

Diversity is crucial for tech success, say Middle Eastern IT leaders

Oct 23, 2021
Diversity and InclusionIT Leadership

At the first edition of IDC's Women Transforming Technology Summit - Middle East, women IT leaders highlight how diversity plays a growing role in technology in the region, and suggest ways to continue the trend.

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Credit: ProStock Studio / Getty Images / LagartoFilm

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is becoming an important topic for enterprises in the Middle East. Especially after the pandemic, the challenges businesses face are more complex than ever and companies now realize that it is crucial for teams to be made up of people with diverse backgrounds and points of view.

The absence of women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a big concern in many countries. In Arab countries, though, there are signs that the tide is turning — 34% to 57% of STEM graduates are women, according to UNESCO.

“Globally, numerous women have assumed leadership positions in the technology industry with great success, confirming the belief that diverse organizations perform better, hire better  talent, have more engaged employees, and retain workers better than those that do not focus on D&I,” said Jyoti Lalchandani, IDC’s group vice president and managing director for the META region.

While the current crisis created by COVID-19 has pushed many enterprises to make a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion for their technology staffs, many business leaders are asking how employers can become more flexible and adopt policies to embrace diversity and inclusion for women in the workplace.

At the recent Women Transforming Technology Summit – Middle East, organized by IDC, women IT leaders spoke about how D&I has played an important role in advancing tech in the region, and how companies can encourage more women to come into the IT sector.

“We need to encourage women, guide them and help them to have access to the conversation, the organizations must be extremely aggressive and ensure there is female representation in the tech industry,” said Auriel Rawlings, diversity, equity and inclusion advisor at FedEx Express in the Middle East.

To encourage D&I, invest in young people

In order to create more female leaders in the technology field, Moudhi ALJamea, a vice president at STC (Saudi Telecom Company) in Saudi Arabia, also thinks businesses should be investing in the younger generation. “We need younger people, they are bringing different skills, so we have to approach to this generation in order to bring diversity and inclusion, they are the future leaders, we need communication,” AlJamea said.

In KSA, Saudi Vision 2030 is a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism, but part of the plan is also to improve women’s participation in the market, in every sector.

 “I think females are living in a golden age,” said AlJamea. But while women are becoming more empowered in general, leaders in certain sectors need to change their mindset in order to accept females, she said. “You don’t expect changes to happen in a day, we are excited about this journey. We see a lot of support from different organizations.” STC has implemented a programme to attract more women into the company and bring them into leadership positions, AlJamea noted.

At STC, AlJamea became the first female VP in the company and assured the audience at the IDC summit that the company’s D&I programme is working to empower women in the workplace. To make the work environment more ‘woman-friendly’, AlJamea suggested that companies create or make available tools for women to share their thoughts and identify “the main areas that can be improved.”

Business is constantly evolving, and while there has been an enormous gender gap in IT,  more enterprises are making efforts to bring a greater number of women into the workforce, said speakers at the IDC summit.

 “For us, our DNA is all about understanding that everyone has a role — we all are chief diversity officers, everyone wants to be heard and seen,” Rawlings said. “When you establish diversity from the ground zero level you need to take the temperature of your organization (to find out) what diversity and inclusion mean for our employees.”

The pandemic: A wake-up call for cybersecurity

The increase in cyberattacks has made the cybersecurity industry one of the fastest-growing in the tech field. The sector is facing a jobs crisis, where according to recent estimates published by Deloitte, by 2022 there could be a global shortfall of 1.8 million cybersecurity professionals.

In 2017, only 11% of the workforce in cybersecurity in the Middle East were women, now it’s 20%. While that is an increase, it is nowhere near parity.

“The pandemic changed everything, it was a wake-up call to all businesses to ensure how technology was supporting the business to continue — it was also a wake-up call for diversity and inclusion,” said Hessa Al Nahdi, CISO at Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi. “In the cybersecurity world acceleration is good but it means also new opportunities for cybercriminals, so we need the right support for talent and skills to fight them and that means diversity.”

How and why could diversity drive more innovative solutions? According to the experts, the pandemic also represented an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation and this acceleration requires all resources you have. “Diversity is not only a luxury, it is a requirement, you need to create awareness and have different opinions, [and] this is also how you address cyber-threats,” said Abeer Khedr, director of information security at National Bank of Egypt.

According to Khedr, the gender gap is higher in company leadership, which has been a male-dominated area for a long time. Now, women need to prepare themselves to face additional responsibility, Kheder said. “I want to advise people, especially young women, don’t be afraid, you can be resilient and achieve the responsibility and fulfil it. The better you are prepared, the better you will be in a position to answer.”