Promoting innovation to shatter gender stereotypes
Laith Abu-Taleb is a 28-year-old gender equality activist and tech entrepreneur from Jordan. A youth mobilization specialist for UN Women’s Arab States regional office, he believes that integrating the unique knowledge and experience of young people into the tech sphere is a powerful way to drive not only technological innovation but also social progress. Laith is the co-founder of Arabic HeForShe, a movement to engage men in the fight for gender equality, and the co-developer of WeRise, a UN Women-supported app that promotes women’s empowerment through gamification.
In the digital age, the real-world status of women and girls has become indivisible from its online counterpart. “We are living in 2023,” Laith emphasizes. “We can’t separate gender equality and technology.”
And yet women remain systematically excluded from technology and innovation. This means not only missing out on high-paying jobs, but also on the chance to shape the digital world in which we are increasingly living. Though targeted interventions have opened new doors for women and girls, many still remain closed—due, Laith says, to the lingering power of gendered norms.
“If we go to the root, when we are talking about science and technology, the stereotyping in our communities limits women’s participation and education in those fields,” Laith explains. So when it comes to expanding women’s influence in the tech sector, “we don’t even have the base,” he says.
In his work with HeForShe, Laith has experienced first-hand the resistance to changing such norms. The taboo around the topic has made it difficult even for those who do believe in gender equality to speak up: many of his fellow activists did not want to be publicly associated with the movement, for fear of judgement. “They believed that, ‘yes, we should be part of the movement, but I don't want any online presence because I don't want my family and my neighbors to talk about me in a negative way,’” Laith explains.
But, with time and perseverance, Laith has seen these attitudes start to change. “They are not afraid anymore,” he says. “They are proud when they are talking about gender equality.”
And that, he emphasizes, is in large part thanks to the power of digital activism. “We start normalizing the idea of gender equality by sharing knowledge,” he says. When he started working with HeForShe, it was difficult to reach people, so the team turned to social media—and eventually to other tech as well—to grow their movement.
This was the motivation behind the development of WeRise. The app, now available on iOS and Android in Arabic, English and French, offers users a digital platform with gender equality-related games, quizzes, forums and other interactive content. “It’s a safe space for everyone to talk and to learn more about gender equality,” he says.
Laith sees technology as an entrance point for marginalized communities to gain visibility, support and—ultimately—power. You don’t need a technical background, he says, to tap into its potential: “By using your phone, you have access to technology. By having an account on Instagram, you have access to technology.”
“I believe that every one of us should have an impact,” Laith says. Start by educating yourself and those around you: “we can do this while we are having dinner with our friends or breakfast with our families”, or by speaking out through social media. Maybe you only reach one person, “but this one person can influence another one and another one and then another one,” he says. “So you are making a chain of impact.”