Women around the world have made remarkable strides – socially, economically and academically. However, there is still a long way to go. Cultural barriers hinder women’s presence and advancement as an entrepreneur and in the STEM fields. This is a global issue, happening in our own backyard but also in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. As director of the TechWomen program, I have the privilege to work with the very women who are defying the stereotypes and obstacles. These women are empowered to make a greater impact by tackling socioeconomic challenges in their own communities.
In the Middle East, and in Jordan, in particular, the root cause of the challenges women face is not a lack of education. In fact, more women enroll in science and tech-related degrees than men. The problem is that women are simply not entering the workforce. Unemployment is high and when positions are available, it’s the men that get the jobs. Iran can relate to similar challenges, where the unemployment rate for women is nearly 20%, which is twice the rate for men, according to the Statistical Center of Iran. In the Middle East, the World Bank reports that less than one-third of women participate in the workforce, which is the lowest among all regions. And if women aren’t working, everyone – families, businesses, communities – miss out on the contribution of a key demographic.
I was in Jordan last this year, and with so many refugees from neighboring countries, their infrastructure cannot accommodate the influx of people. As you can imagine, fixing the gender gap is not on the top of their priority list. That’s why TechWomen goes to places like Jordan. We meet with girls, and we inspire them to pursue careers in science and tech. We feel this is a way for them to build a bright future for themselves and their community. I’m proud to introduce many of you to TechWomen. We are a network of more than 900 women helping women, from the Middle East to Africa and Central Asia. And this year, we are expanding to South Asia with the addition of Pakistan. Hopefully one day, we’ll see the program expand to Iran, too. We bring these women to the Bay Area for a professional mentorship, and beyond that, we connect and empower them with a network of women who have the knowledge, skills and will to make things happen. We help each other overcome barriers, and we help our alumnae make the impact they feel is most needed in their local community. TechWomen participants are emerging women leaders in STEM from 22 countries. These women are pioneers in their fields, in the workplace, in their communities, and they’re shaping not just their future but ours, too. Our TechWomen are selected because they are not only brilliant, but they are already doing things that make their communities a better place. What we do is help them. How? By connecting them with other thought leaders in their home country and in the U.S. We do this by exposing them to innovation, by encouraging them not to be afraid and by reminding them that they have the capacity to do even more.
Meet Hanan from Jordan. After she participated in the TechWomen program in 2013, she launched a company called HelloWorldKids. Hello World Kids has developed curriculum to teach programming to kids as young as eight. Hanan was featured in Forbes, and since then, she has expanded her curriculum to teach programming to deaf and mute kids. HelloWorldKids is so effective that Hanan expects the curriculum to be implemented in more than 30 schools across Jordan, reaching 40,000 students. And in addition to Jordan, HelloWorldKids has received funding to expand into classrooms in The Netherlands and in Lebanon. Hanan has cited TechWomen as a source of inspiration for HelloWorldKids. We often hear that you cannot be what you cannot see, and with Hanan, you have a role model for female entrepreneurs worldwide and for future generations of women techies.
There are hundreds of stories just like these from our TechWomen in Nigeria, Palestine, Kazakhstan and beyond. Ultimately, this is the TechWomen program. We are giving women leaders – change agents – the platform and courage to drive the change they want to see in their community. And this is critical. Because, in order to affect real change, it needs to be done by the people living in those very communities. We need to have women serve as positive role models to encourage girls to pursue careers and inspire them to stay with it. We say that the TechWomen program itself is the beginning, the turning point for the women, their communities and the future.
Silicon Valley has embraced a culture of moving fast and taking leaps. There’s much movement toward greater diversity and breaking cultural norms. We’re shaping a movement and not only can we set precedent, but we have the means to impact emerging women globally. The fact is, when women are healthy and educated, their children are healthy and educated. When women are empowered, their families are empowered. Stronger families mean stronger communities, and it is our hope for a better tomorrow.
TechWomen is a powerful network and resource, and I invite you to connect with us to collaborate on projects, offer your support or learn more about our initiatives. Despite our perceived differences, whether they’re geographic, cultural or religious, this program has taught me that we are far more similar than we are different. Above all, we are united by a passion for STEM and desire to contribute to making the world a better place