Dr. Mona Demaidi’s first introduction to programming at sixteen set her up to become the youngest female with a Ph.D. at An-Najah National University’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology in 2016. With her Ph.D. in Advanced Software Engineering and Machine Learning and MSc with distinction in Software Engineering and Data Management from the University of Manchester, Dr. Demaidi continues to push the boundaries of what is expected of women in the Artificial Intelligence field.
She is a part of Arab Woman in Computing, a large community that brings together youth from all over the world to join a conference allowing them to network with big technology companies, possibly opening the door for job opportunities. When she first joined, she was able to secure three scholarships for women at her university to join the conference, expecting to receive many applications. However, nobody applied. This was when Dr. Demaidi realized that it is necessary to empower young women and encourage them to apply to these opportunities to further build their skills and careers so that there are more women in the decision-making room.
Given that the technology industry is a heavily male-dominated field, Dr. Demaidi often finds herself being one of two or three women in a room of thirty men; however, that has not deterred her from making sure she and other women’s voices are heard. She stressed how important it is to have someone in the room who is willing to stand by your plan or support your ideas just to get the ball rolling; in this way, they have created a supportive network that allows their ideas to be heard.
As a woman in tech, she has also faced micro-aggressions in meetings such that any statistics involving the increasing number of women in the field are pointedly directed as something she should be particularly proud of instead of a point of industry pride, or men’s belief that women are undeserving of scholarships or of being in positions of power in the industry. This is especially potent when the statistics show that there are a large number of women graduating into the sector but not finding job opportunities to grow their careers.
Thus, knowing how women are represented in the field, she is an avid supporter of empowering youth and women in the technology sector. She has been a board member with Women in Engineering and Arab Women in computing since 2014. In 2017, she became the first female chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in Palestine and was later awarded the senior membership from IEEE becoming the first woman to do so. In 2019, Dr. Demaidi became the Co-Managing Director for Girls in Tech in Palestine, the first Girls in Tech chapter in the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region.
During the 2020 lockdown, Dr. Demaidi was inspired by online learning and developed VTech Road, the first Arabic social innovation online platform in the MENA. VTech Road specifically focuses on entrepreneurship and sustainable development goals and aims to reach out to young women in disadvantaged areas in Palestine. To this date, over eighty women have participated in the program and had the chance to pitch their ideas and projects in front of judges and experts from across the Arab region. She is also heading Guardian-A, a holistic high-tech mobile application start-up, offering an accessible and customizable product to ensure women’s sexual health and safety through prevention, emergency, and support services.
However, success is not without its challenges. Dr. Demaidi considered quitting while studying to receive her Master’s degree as it was very overwhelming. At that point, her family- specifically her father- stepped in and told her they would support whatever decision she chose to take and advised her to take two weeks off and return to Palestine for a break. After those two weeks, she decided to return to the United Kingdom and complete both her Master’s degree and her Ph.D. For that and other reasons, she is extremely grateful for her family’s continuous support.
Ideally, she believes that there should be a structured connection between the educational sector and the private sector. Governments need to work on employment policies first to ensure equal opportunities are provided to men and women in all sectors, second to provide equal pay to men and women, and third to help younger generations make the right decisions about their future careers. The market is currently saturated with young people who study engineering or medicine, with less of a focus on other fields that have a strong future such as artificial intelligence.
As for the educational sector, they have the difficult and necessary task to provide equal educational opportunities to young girls and include them in conversations about engineering, programming, technology, and other twenty-first-century skills to properly equip them for the future. Schools and the media also need to empower the youth- particularly young girls- to make their own decisions about their future careers, instead of listening to what society tells them is the appropriate path, by providing them with examples of successful women in different fields.
She advises young girls and women to pursue what they love and be passionate about it. She also assures them that “it is okay not to know what you want to be in the future” and that it is “completely normal for most [people].” She believes it is more important to try different things until they find what they like and figure out what they would like to achieve, and that “anybody can do anything if [they] love what [they] are doing, even if they come from minority groups.” She says “it is important to have a strong support system that will encourage you, whether it is colleagues, friends, or family.”
This story was written by Ghada El Kawas