I’m so tired of the notion that women in this region don’t have talent. I’ve heard it over the years, but never as blatantly until I was speaking on a tech panel where my male co-panelist said he doesn’t hire more women in the MENA region because they don’t have talent and they can’t commit.
At the time, I was extremely flustered. I was angry. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The moderator tried to help him out by asking for a clarification to his statement- the speaker continued with more nonsense. According to him, he wasn’t being sexist- he wasn’t discriminating against women in the US or the UK, this was a problem for women in this region particularly.
He thought he was making a rational argument- women here didn’t want to work longer hours, they weren’t fully committed to work. Clearly their professional careers were not a priority.
When he said his statement, there was a collective gasp from everyone in the audience- this was a hall full of people, and they were as stunned as I was. A few women seated right in front of me couldn’t believe it either—they were shaking their heads angrily, frowning.
One of my other co-panelists, another renowned female entrepreneur was also on stage, silent. She had a serious look on her face, I could tell this wasn’t the first time she’d heard this BS. My other co-panelist (we were evenly rounded to 4), looked plain uncomfortable. This was one of his first panels, I’m guessing he wasn’t exactly thanking his luck.
I was fuming. My face is very expressive, the moderator noticed it too and he wanted my thoughts.
Image description: Mashal holding a mic in one hand in the midst of saying something, and being expressive with one hand.
I rebutted with how working longer hours did not equate to productivity necessarily, and how remote working was the future anyway. That our perception of work and productivity is wrong, and we need to change it. As for women not having talent- I do feel it’s my responsibility as an employer to build up talent. To work on how I’m recruiting, and to find the all-star team I’m looking for. If my team looks the same, there’s a problem. If there are certain profiles who consistently aren’t growing- we have a problem. Sexism has different touchpoints. My first experience was at a career fair when I was looking for a cybersecurity co-op. A female recruiter from a big tech firm told me she couldn’t picture me behind a screen, and she dissuaded me from applying to the company.
I remember feeling disheartened that day. Why wouldn’t she accept my resume if they had open positions, and when I had more work experience than the rest of my classmates at the time?
Can you imagine? Recruiters being the reason you don’t want to work at a company?
This isn’t an isolated experience. I’ve had had years of being dismissed when I’d ask technical questions at tech conferences. It was disheartening, but what was worse was feeling excluded. I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. That I was not a part of this sector.
Our graduate numbers keep rising and yet we see a small % of women rising through the ranks in technical departments at startups and in larger organizations. Clearly, our current models don’t work. It’s not that the talent isn’t there- it’s that they’re not being discovered, not being nurtured, or in some cases (like mine) being dissuaded from working in the industry.
Unfortunately, in the startup ecosystem, the people we glorify to no end are not the ones building incredible teams from grounds up or surviving another day. No, the people we put up on pedestals are the ones raising tens of millions in investment and being openly sexist.
I know we’re all human at the end of the day, but it scares me to think about how people can still feel comfortable believing women have no talent and so confidently say it on stage to an entire hall full people.
Every time there’s an uncomfortable truth, and I speak up, I fear being labelled negatively. I am excluded from narratives, conversations, and opportunities every time I write about it, every time I speak up, and that hurts.
I still feel blood rushing to my ears when I think about that day. Being on stage is nerve-wracking as it is, but listening to outright sexist comments, and keeping my cool so I can articulate my response is f*cking difficult. What I really wanted to do was ask how this was even a question. I was angry but calmly wording out my thoughts. I ended with how I didn’t have a response to his “Women don’t have talent” statement, and I didn’t really know what to say to that. I was silent for the next few minutes, as was everyone else. An uncomfortable truth.
Because really, how do I prove to you how smart and capable and brilliant women are? (for the record I run a startup with 99% women)
Image description: A panelled wall with the text sprayed: speak the truth, even if your voice shakes
I kept thinking of a sentence I’d read somewhere- speak the truth, even if your voice shakes. It was important to address and confront in that moment even though it was scaring the heck out of me. I hate confrontation and conflict. But, I would’ve regretted not saying anything. If I was as shy as I’d been a few years ago, I may not have spoken up either. But years of wear and tear do that to you.
The event happened last year, but it’s taken me a bit of 2019 and 2020 to get myself to write this piece. I’ve reflected and done some work meanwhile- worked on countering sexism offline, done more homework, and had tons of IRL conversations around how we can do better.
The cliffnotes version—
Investors can do better by holding their founders accountable, and asking the right questions around hiring processes, team structures, et all.
Founders can do better by improving their existing processes and structures. By paying attention to the kind of behavior they reward, by reflecting and changing things up if their teams do look the same (cough no-women cough). Y’all will be the winners when you hire better.
Of course, we can also do better by speaking up and calling out the behavior for what it is. By writing about this. By starting conversations and talking to others in the ecosystem about this. But most importantly, by doing the work to educate ourselves and working on countering our bias. The unaware sexist ones may not do this, but I can hope.
If you’re wondering about what happened after— we got off stage. Lots of folks came forward and expressed their similar sentiments and disbelief. I figured it might be helpful to have a conversation with him separately. I debated internally, and decided if he’s hiring big numbers, I want to make an effort to making him understand instead of a Twitter thread (although I was tempted). I connected him to a mentor of mine, who’s an expert in this area. It didn’t go too well, and that’s that.
I’ll end this with something I shouldn’t have to say but I will anyway—
Women in the MENA region do have talent and we can and do commit to work. These are facts. You can ignore them and BS about them, but no amount of gaslighting will change that.
PS, I’m tackling only one spectrum of this conversation today, but there’s many others I’ll eventually write about. x