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From Gaza to Greenwich, we can all recognise the challenges tech women face

Me with part of the Tech Hub Women’s Group, Gaza. Photo credit: Mohammed Farra

From Gaza to Greenwich, We Can All Recognise the Challenges Tech Women Face

Here are some universal solutions

I recently spent a few weeks in Gaza and West Bank mentoring aspiring tech entrepreneurs and startup teams. This was my fourth time in Gaza working with startups in some capacity. It is always an amazing experience.

I was volunteering for Gaza Sky Geeks, a programme that has been particularly successful at ensuring that often 50% or even more of its participants in programmes or events are women.

GSG is the leading co-working space, startup accelerator, and technology education hub in Gaza. They bring together online freelancers, outsourcers, and startup founders together under one roof to share ideas, learn, innovate, and code. They run an accelerator, a freelancers’ academy, and a code academy.

I ran a variety of sessions with different groups. I shared my story about how I became a tech startup founder as an over-40 non-techie and how I overcame obstacles. I ran workshops on leading and managing teams. And I coached the ten current teams on the Geexelerator accelerator on the art of the of the pitch to get them ready for Demo Day.

People would often share their biggest challenges with me, and ask for my advice on how to succeed in their tech entrepreneur/startup journey.

Most people talked about the same things many of us face every day — a lack of confidence or a feeling of overwhelm when faced with the wall of decisions and actions a startup founder must tackle. This was true for men and women.

But there were three specific challenges that the women I worked with regularly shared.

On one hand they may seem like these are challenges for these women because they live in Gaza and are part of that culture. But on the other hand, we talked about how women, and tech women in particular, face challenges no matter where you are in the world. The secret is how we work together to support each other and build each other up.

In “the West” we may like to think that we are progressive and have the privilege of equality, but many of us have had experiences that contradict that assumption. Here are the three most common challenges that were shared with me, and my thoughts about how they reflect similar challenges I have had in my own journey:

Parents/families or husbands that wouldn’t let them pursue their dreams

This could be something simple like not letting them attend courses or talks in the evenings, or not letting them take paid employment. One particularly frustrating challenge was for the women whose husbands said all the right things — he wants me to succeed, he wants me to pursue my startup idea, or learn to code or build websites, but only if I am always home when he is home, the dinner is made, the kids are tended to, and the house is kept. Which, in reality, made it impossible to do what was necessary to put that dream into action.

In my lifetime, even coming from a matriarchal family of strong, independent women, as a young woman in particular I seemed to always have people telling me what to do, or what they thought I should do, or worse, telling me what I can’t do. This has continued into my 40's, but I have gotten better at tuning it out.

I have been privileged in that no one could stop me doing what I wanted to, but the psychological effect of the constant messaging from friends, family, even strangers in our society is powerful. It can be limiting in its own right even if you are not physically kept in the house, for instance.

Women encouraging women is essential to combatting this constant feed that tries to limit women’s experience in our communities.

Not being offered jobs by male employers

Gaza has some of the most educated young people in the world. There are many people with various types of advanced computer science degrees, men and women, who are facing some of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

One woman had an advanced degree and had been working for free for two years to build up her experience in order to get a paying job. She had been on many interviews but the men wouldn’t hire her. She was told either they didn’t think it was right that she should work outside of the house, or that they expected her to quit as soon as she got married.

Again, we have laws here in the UK that mean that no one can refuse to hire you because you are a woman, or because you may have children, or for any other reason that falls into the category of a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010. But I hear about women experiencing all types of discrimination like this anyway. People here are just better at being surreptitious about their discrimination!

And I for one have faced a different type of exclusion from men in particular, and specifically around my late arrival to the tech/startup scene — it’s not based in law, but as a middle-aged woman I sometimes feel excluded from certain activities, opportunities, or events that are dominated by 20–30 year old techie men who like to keep their spaces homogenous.

Being excluded from any opportunity, whether overtly or inadvertently truly blows for us women, and for me is one of the most infuriating occurrences I experience as a woman in this space.

Creating women’s spaces, helping women succeed who then become the next big employer in the community, or taking action such as refusing to take part in manels (men-only panels) creates a reality of inclusion that goes beyond the legal tick-box illusion.

Finally, not being able to get the basic equipment, such as a laptop, to get the training and experience you need to get a job if you could. Affordable, accessible computers are difficult to come by. It is often impossible to get parts to repair old or damaged equipment.

One young woman had graduated as a graphic designer and wanted to join a startup. But she didn’t have access to even a basic laptop. This is not uncommon. I saw startup founders who were experienced developers building complex software solutions with ancient laptops with damaged screens that couldn’t be repaired, because the tools and spares aren’t available.

This challenge is less transferable than the previous two certainly to my culture and experience in the UK, for instance. But the solution I offered for these women is part of the solution I would offer for women everywhere. And that is to support each other and build each other up. And ask for help.

In the Tech Hub women’s group, we talked about how we could put the word out that one of the women was in need of a laptop. Did someone get a new one recently, and could sell their old one to this woman who needs one?

Gazans are not allowed to take laptops with them out of Gaza on the rare occasion travel is permitted. Is someone’s brother studying abroad who can loan their laptop out until his return?

These sorts of solutions can’t happen if we don’t share our problems, our down days (which we all have!) our needs, our doubts. And women must be there to listen to each other, and step up to help when we can.

Women are generally excellent solution-finders, especially in constricting situations, and I know that if we listen out for each other and keep communicating, we can link someone in need with the answer to their problem.

I have written before about the many challenges people in Gaza face on a day to day basis regarding the most basic of needs.

But tech women face a another level of specific challenges that may not be exactly the same all over the world, but they do rhyme. Recognising these similarities and offering support and solutions to each other can make the difference between success and failure.

In this Gazan community in particular, the successful women of today become the employers and providers of tomorrow. This creates a change for all women that can build a whole new set of opportunities for generations to come. This is also true in my community, and yours.

My first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams is out now. You can find access to a free pdf workbook that accompanies it on my website. If you do read my book, I would love to hear your comments.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.