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Women in Technology in Palestine

By Mona Nabil Demaidi

The technology sector in Palestine has grown rapidly in recent years despite challenges posed by political instability and limited access to resources. The sector focuses primarily on software development and IT services with a limited contribution to the hardware technology industry. According to a report published by the World Bank, Palestine’s tech sector grew by 34 percent during the past 10 years, driven by rising demand for IT services and a growing number of startups. In addition, the report notes that the ICT sector accounts for 3.2 percent of Palestine’s GDP and is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy.*1
Despite the growth of technology and the increasing number of job opportunities in the tech industry, women in technology (WIT) are significantly underrepresented. Women continue to face significant barriers to entry and advancement in technology and entrepreneurship, including bias and discrimination, lack of access to funding and mentorship, lack of confidence, and a lack of representation at the highest levels of leadership.
One of the key drivers of technology growth is the development of technology education at Palestinian universities and educational institutions, which helped increase the number of tech-based graduates from 2016 by approximately 50 percent. Between 2016 and 2021, 13,939 students graduated from tech-based educational programs, with females representing 49 percent of these graduates (see Figure 1). This is a very high percentage compared to other countries worldwide. According to a report issued by the World Economic Forum, females make up only 18 percent of computer science graduates in the United States. Similarly, in the European Union, women comprise only 16 percent of graduates in ICT fields.*2 And in the MENA region, the percentage of females enrolled in technology programs at universities is also relatively low, with women making up only around 30 percent of students in ICT programs.*3
Figure 1: Percentage of male and female graduates in technological disciplines at the university level

When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), however, Palestine, like many other countries, is still at a very early stage in developing and adopting trending technologies. In 2022, I developed the Palestinian National Strategy for AI that aims to accelerate the development and adoption of AI. The strategy included an intensive analysis of the current status of AI in Palestine across the education, entrepreneurship, government, and research and development sectors in Palestine. In addition, it examined the legal framework and whether it is coping with trending technologies. The results revealed that only 9 percent of Palestinian universities and colleges offer educational programs specialized in AI. Figure 2 shows that Palestine offers 6 programs specialized in AI, which is close to other countries in the European Union. These programs constitute only 2.6 percent of the 224 technological academic programs offered at universities and colleges. The vast majority of these programs (83.3 percent) are master’s programs, and there is still no PhD program specialized in AI. The results confirm that Palestine is at a very early stage in terms of the availability of AI educational resources and trainers.

Figure 2: Academic programs in AI in the European Union and Palestine


The limited availability of educational programs in AI contributes to the low number of students pursuing an education in the field. The number of Palestinian college and university graduates who specialized in AI between 2016 and 2021 was very low (28 out of 13,939 graduates in tech-based programs). Moreover, 60.7 percent of students specializing in AI are males, and 39.3 percent are females. This indicates that females are underrepresented in AI educational programs, which is in contrast to their strong participation as students specializing in various technological degree programs. This can be attributed to the lack of female role models and mentors in the field of AI. In addition, the AI industry is currently male-dominated, which can create a culture that is less inclusive and welcoming toward women.*4
Despite the high percentage of female students enrolled in tech-based educational programs, their participation in the tech industry in Palestine is very low, as women account for only 20 percent of the workforce in the technology sector.*5 This low percentage is similar to other countries worldwide. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women comprise only 26 percent of the computing workforce in the United States.*6 In the European Union, women represent 17 percent of the ICT workforce, which is higher than in the MENA region, where women make up only 14 percent of the tech workforce.*7
Female participation in the workforce decreases significantly in AI-related fields. According to a 2020 report issued by the World Economic Forum, women represent only 22 percent of AI professionals globally.*8 This underrepresentation of women in AI is a significant challenge that threatens to limit the diversity of perspectives and perpetuates biases in AI systems. The lack of gender diversity in the AI workforce can result in AI systems that reflect the biases and assumptions of a narrow group of developers and data scientists, leading to potential negative impacts on society as a whole. To address this challenge, efforts are being made to increase the participation of women in AI through mentorship, training, and other initiatives. However, much work remains to be done to ensure that AI systems are developed and deployed in a way that is inclusive and equitable for everyone.*9

The emergence of a thriving startup ecosystem has been a significant factor contributing to the growth of the technology sector in Palestine. There are more than 200 startups operating in Palestine, with a significant portion focused on technology and software development. Many of these startups are founded and led by young Palestinians who are using technology to solve pressing social and economic problems in the region.*10 The vast majority of startups are e-commerce companies, followed by the education and health sectors (see Figure 3), but only 15 percent of tech-based startups are led by females.*11
Looking closely at AI-based startups in Palestine, we find that less than 0.1 percent of startups are AI-related, with 0 percent of startups being led by females. Worldwide, there is no comprehensive data available on the percentage of AI startups led by females. However, some reports suggest that women are underrepresented in the startup industry overall, with estimates ranging from 17 percent to 21 percent of startup founders being women. It is likely that the percentage of AI startups that are led by females is even lower, given the underrepresentation of women in the AI industry. While efforts are being made to increase the participation of women in AI startups, more work is needed to create a more equitable and inclusive environment that would allow all individuals to thrive in the technology sector.
Figure 3: Tech-based startups per sector in Palestine


In summary, the technology sector in Palestine is growing rapidly, with a focus on software development and IT services. Despite this growth, WIT are significantly underrepresented in the sector due to various barriers such as bias, discrimination, lack of funding and mentorship, and limited representation in leadership positions. Technology education has played a key role in driving the growth of the sector, with females representing 49 percent of tech-based graduates in Palestine. However, the availability of educational programs specialized in AI is still limited, with only 9 percent of Palestinian universities offering such programs. The underrepresentation of women in the AI industry threatens to limit diversity and perpetuate biases in AI systems. The emergence of a thriving startup ecosystem has also contributed to the growth of the sector, but only 15 percent of tech-based startups in Palestine are led by females. Efforts are being made to increase the participation of WIT and entrepreneurship, but much work remains to ensure that AI systems are developed and deployed in an inclusive and equitable way. The Palestinian National Strategy for AI focused on empowerment of females in AI tech education, industry, and entrepreneurship, and several initiatives and programs have been launched to help achieve this. Currently, I am leading an initiative called AI for us (AI4US) which is being launched to empower youth, particularly females, to participate in AI fields by spreading awareness on AI applications and ethics. Moreover, Girls in Tech Palestine is running an AI bootcamp to help females develop AI-based solutions which contribute to the sustainable development goals.

*1 World Bank Group, “Palestinian Digital Economy Assessment,” 2021, available at documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/472671640152521943/pdf/Palestinian-Digital-Economy-Assessment.pdf.
*2 European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, She figures handbook 2021, Publications Office, 2021, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2777/003736.
*3 World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2020,” available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf.
*4 Cary Funk and Kim Parker, “Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity, ” Pew Research Center, 2018, available at https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/.
*5 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, “Women and Men in Palestine 2019” (in Arabic), available at https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/Downloads/book2567.pdf.
*6 National Center for Women & Information Technology, “By the Numbers,” available at https://ncwit.org/resource/bythenumbers/.
*7 European Commission, “Women in Digital Scoreboard,” available at https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/news/women-digital-scoreboard-2021; World Bank, “Mashreq: 5 Lessons to Increase Women’s Work in the Digital Sector,” available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2022/11/24/mashreq-5-lessons-to-increase-women-s-work-in-the-digital-sector
*8 World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2020.”
*9 Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen, “Excavating AI: The Politics of Images in Machine Learning Training Sets,” September 2019, available at https://excavating.ai/.
*10 Palestinian Information and Communications Technology Incubator (PICTI), “Our Portfolio: West Bank Startups, Gaza Startups,” available at https://www.picti.ps/our-portfolio/.
*11 Hasan Qasem, Intersect Innovation Hub, Palestine Startups Ecosystem Map, Polaris, 2021, available at https://polaris.ps/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Palestine-Startups-Ecosystem-Map.pdf .

  • Dr. Mona Nabil Demaidi, is managing director of Girls in Tech in Palestine and an assistant professor at An-Najah National University in Palestine. She obtained her PhD in artificial intelligence, an MSc (with distinction) in software engineering from the University of Manchester. In 2022, she was granted the UNESCO award for the most influential women in the MENA region in STEM and became the young Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) representative in Palestine.

1 Comment

  1. Ed Wolfe

    *A MUST READ* for “frustrated” #wannabee #TechSavvy #people like me. …Come to think of it, we are ALL #wannabee #people . . . even Stephen Brobst & Mark Zuckerberg!!!

    Reply

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