NYUAD Professor Establishes Regional Collaborative Workshop on Women in Computing in the Arab World

The first conference in the region to focus on the unique needs and issues of women in computing, Women in Computing in the Arab World, a regional collaborative workshop, was recently held at NYUAD. Founded by Sana Odeh, NYUAD's clinical associate professor of computer science, the two-day conference aimed to "provide an opportunity for prominent regional and international women in computer science to come together to exchange ideas for research and innovation in computing, to discuss opportunities for collaboration throughout the region (and world), to figure out strategies to increase female enrollment in computer science, to explore the role of women in tech start-ups, and to talk about positive trends as well as difficulties in the field," Odeh said.

Among the participants were professors, technology experts and professionals, students, software engineers, researchers, and developers. "There were many inspiring speakers during the workshop," Odeh said. One of them was Fatima K Abu Salem, associate professor of computer science at the American University of Beirut, who gave a "very moving speech" about the research difficulties facing women in computer science in the region. Another was May Habib, founder and CEO of Qordoba, a recently launched UAE start-up already rated as one of the best start-ups in the region whose mission is "to create digital content in Arabic using machine-translation technology," Odeh explained, who spoke about the process of starting a company, and the challenges and opportunities for women who wish to do the same.

For NYUAD sophomore Alice Tessen, the workshop helped to prepare her for the future. "As a female computer science major, I feel that it is important for me to start thinking about the professional options that I will have after graduation, as well as the challenges I may face in pursuing my goals in computer science or whatever I choose to do," she said. "At this conference, I found particularly interesting how many of the panel speakers were employees of Western-based companies and how they were able to merge the ideals and goals of those companies with the realities of their environment."

Looking forward, Odeh plans to organize this conference again. And judging from the positive reactions to this year's event, and the support of the participants who are "now committed to the idea of having a gathering like this one in the future," Odeh said, the workshop will likely appear on the calendar next year. "It was evident that it hit a chord among all of the participants," she continued. Indeed, during the conference, participants decided to develop a study on women in computing in the Arab world because of the limited research and discrepancies among the data in dealing with this issue. They also unanimously agreed to create an organization for women in computing, which, Odeh said, "will be linked to the women in computing organizations in the US."

In addition to the hope that participants left the workshop with the belief that they are "not alone facing challenges in the field," Odeh also wanted attendees "to have the opportunity to find ways to collaborate on research and to build strong networks of support to overcome challenges." Reflecting on the event and its positive outcome, Odeh exclaimed, "This regional conference exceeded my expectations on all levels!"

  • NYUAD hosts the first regional workshop on Women in Computing in the Arab World (ACM-W newsletter, page 33)

The idea for the workshop came about last year, when Odeh met with several regional professors of computer science. "I was surprised to learn that at a time when enrollment in computer science in the US has fallen from 37 percent in the early 1980s to a dismal rate nearing 20 percent today, several Arab countries are witnessing an increase in female enrollment — at least during the first few years of college," Odeh explained. However, in addition to these women dropping out of the field "either after the first few years or after they graduate," Odeh said, they also "remain significantly underrepresented among faculty in computer science fields in the Arab world, which is also the case in countries including the US, Germany, and Australia."

Odeh decided to do something about it. "I wanted to organize a regional conference similar to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which is held in the US and has been a great success in supporting, inspiring, and retaining women in computer science and technology-related fields," Odeh said. Less than a year later, Odeh had 40 women from 11 countries in the Arab world, US, and Canada in one room — all in computer science and IT-related fields — to speak about their own experiences, discuss problems, and come up with solutions. "It was inspiring," Odeh said. And from these talks it became evident that, regardless of their home countries, women in computing around the world face many of the same obstacles. "There was a great sense of bonding," she said.

As a female computer science major, I feel that it is important for me to start thinking about the professional options that I will have after graduation, as well as the challenges I may face in pursuing my goals in computer science or whatever I choose to do.

Alice Tessen, NYUAD Class of 2014