Dubai
Shaima Ghafoor, is the regional director of campaign group Girls in Tech for the Middle East(Reuters)

The United Arab Emirates has grabbed headlines for its big buildings, flash cars and excessive luxuries.

But beyond the excess, there are a group of women breaking into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) related careers and outperforming their male counterparts.

The phenomenon was recently picked up by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which revealed that the country is making serious progress in gender equality in Stem fields.

Separately, a study from consultant Booz Allen estimates that, if the UAE follows the pattern of Greece, Ireland and Spain (where female participation in Stem careers grew by 15-20% over three decades), this could lead to an increase in productivity and consumption that would boost GDP by 12%.

In light of the research, IBTimes UK decided to profile three women working in the UAE who are helping reverse the country's gender gap.



Name: Shaima Ghafoor

Occupation: Regional Director Girls in Tech - Middle East



As a young woman in Kuwait, Ghafoor was expected to "go to college in the country, return and then get married". But, unlike her peers, Ghafoor has been "very techie" since she was a youngster.

A lot of her friends would spend their savings at one of Kuwait's shopping centres, but Ghafoor saved her money to buy the latest and greatest devices.

Ghafoor even had her own, all be it illegitimate, start-up at the age of 14. She copied and sold music off the controversial music sharing service Napster. [There was no law in place at the time that deemed it illegal]. 

The self-described techie claims that at the time she did not realise the ever-expanding enterprise was illegal. But the business saw her invest the money back into the black market company, helping boost productivity.

Ghafoor even expanded into copying movies until Napster was shutdown. Despite the clandestine operation, Ghafoor says she learnt some essential business skills such as marketing and logistics from the experience.

Education

Ghafoor regrets studying English literature at the American University in Cairo. She says it was the "biggest mistake" she has made and wishes someone had told her that she could have studied computer science. Something that would have been more suited to her technology skills and entrepreneurial spirit.

Ghafoor says she took the subject because her family thought it was the best thing to study. They thought she would be able to make a lot of money teaching the subject and enjoy a good work/life balance.

But Ghafoor only realised that she did not want to pursue that career once she had graduated. She stresses that she did not want to have the "easy life" her family wanted her to have.

So, for her second degree, she studied integrated marketing communications at the University of Westminster.

Ghafoor explains that she relinquished her old, entrepreneurial hobbies in London during the course. She "dabbled" in start-ups, and then was hired by a digital marketing in agency to set up an office in Cairo.

The plan was put on hold as soon as the 2011 revolution of Egypt started to erupt. In Cairo, Ghafoor continued to work using her expertise in social media marketing and was eventually snapped up by Yahoo, where she now works a products solution manager.

Roadblocks

Ghafoor says as a Kuwaiti woman she was not expected to go abroad to college or pursue her "own dreams". But she says she was lucky to have a "very supportive" immediate family, who have backed her throughout her career.

"They knew that Kuwait is a very small market and it wouldn't be able to meet my career aspirations," Ghafoor explains. "Society, of course, condones the fact that I'm not married or living in Kuwait – this is part of the constant challenges I face."

Work Life

Ghafoor stresses that none of her colleagues has ever treated her unequally. But, as a Kuwaiti, people are "shocked" that she is working in a corporate company, let alone a small business.

As not a lot of Kuwaitis work in "challenging environments" – because the country has a lot of desirable and comfortable benefits – Ghafoor says she sticks out.

Ghafoor explains the real problem in the UAE and Middle East is that there is a lack of women in technology leadership roles. She claims senior female managers are non-existant.