Technology-intensive fields, such as high tech, oil, and energy, have grown rapidly in the 21st century in Saudi Arabia, far outstripping other industries. It’s no secret that women in tech roles in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — face significant challenges in local, regional and global contexts. Research shows that women leave the technology field at twice the rate as men. Although these are sobering numbers, and the complexity of the problem has numerous dimensions, we know that there ARE successful women leaders in tech who have overcome these statistics and gone on to higher levels of success, without derailing their careers or opting out.
What can be learned from their experiences? The Saudi chapter of ArabWIC sought answers to this recurring question by organizing a webinar in 2016 dedicated to the topic of surviving graduate studies for women in technology fields. The webinar was held on May 25, 2016 and moderated by Asma Aljuhani, our Saudi Chapter Webinar Coordinator, and Aseel Alhadlaq, our Saudi Chapter Mentoring Coordinator, and Nour Alkhalil, our Saudi Chapter’s website Coordinator.
Panelists in the webinar were from different computing backgrounds and were enrolled in graduate programs across the spectrum of theoretical and applied computing. Three participants were members of the Software and Knowledge Engineering Research Group (SKERG) and Human-Computer Interaction @HCI_Lab in King Saud University, a multidisciplinary research lab in the capital city of Riyadh and a leading HCI research center in the region. SKERG members included Najwa Alghamdi, Lecturer in King Saud University and PhD student at Sheffield University in the UK; Weaam Alrashed, TA in the Software Engineering Department of King Saud University and MSc student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada; and Dr. Sharifa Alghowinem, Assistant Professor at Prince Sultan University and Alumnus of Australia National University. Georgia Tech’s PhD student, Huda Alamri also joined the panel and shared insights from her journey in graduate studies. It was interesting to note from the webinar’s discussion and journeys of our panelists that in true moments in which some female CS Postgrad students felt overwhelmed or wanted to quit, what would have helped them more than anything was to see other women in the rooms, classes and labs they were in.. other women who were making it work. Driven by a desire to contribute towards building a community of women mentoring women, and motivated by a desire to help other women advance in the field of computing, our webinar’s women panelists shared authentic experiences and took the time to reach out and engage with the communities of women in tech and reflect on their issues.
Webinar moderators conducted an in-session poll to better understand the audience’s background and align it with the ongoing discussion and topics in the conversation. The polls showed that the largest group of the attendees was MSc students enrolled in computing programs, followed by the Bachelor degree students, then the group of PhD students. Although this webinar was targeting graduate students, undergraduate students indicated that their participation contributed towards feeling motivated and inspired to pursue further studies in the field simply from observing the flow of dialog in the webinar and topics being discussed. On another poll, responses indicated that this webinar’s audience was mostly studying or interested to study in the United States followed by an interest to study -or currently studying – in the United Kingdom. Therefore, webinar moderators along with the panelists elaborated on their educational experience in these countries.
Webinar moderators and panelists interacted with the audience with insights and authentic experiences that resonated well, not only with webinar participants but with a broader audience of women in tech, and this consequently helped build closer connections between Saudi women studying abroad in disparate fields within the domain of computing. Notably, aligned with recently introduced scholarship programs in the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia ranks 4th in the international student body in US public and private higher education institutions (preceded only by China, India and South Korea) with approximately 60,000 students in the US. Thus the issues, challenges, and opportunities for female Saudi postgraduate students and early career researchers was a timely topic for discussion and sparked the interest of our Women in Tech community in Saudi Arabia to carry on the discussion along those lines in future webinars.