IST doctoral student aims to empower Saudi women through technology

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sarah Almoaiqel first came to Penn State in 2002 when her father was pursuing his doctorate in the College of Education. After her family returned to their native Saudi Arabia, she began looking at where she wanted to pursue her own education. Given her father’s experience at Penn State, it was an easy choice for her.

After earning two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), she is now working toward her doctorate in IST. “I love Penn State, and after my master’s I felt like I still could get more out of it,” she said.

Now studying human-computer interaction under the direction of Jack Carroll, distinguished professor of information sciences and technology, she is “drawn to any research where there’s a very specific sociocultural problem that I can address.”

For one such problem, Almoaiqel and a group of student researchers are studying how to increase participation in charitable efforts. The team is creating an app that aggregates all volunteer opportunities in a given area, making it easy for people to take advantage of ways to help their community.

“The problem is people aren’t always aware of volunteer opportunities close by,” she shared. The team plans to interview community members, students, organizations, and volunteer recruiters in State College to get a better idea of how to reach their audience. “We’re trying to understand the perspective of the students, how they’re finding opportunities,” she said.

“We all value volunteer service to the community,” said Carroll, “but it is impressive that infrastructures to encourage and support such service are piecemeal and often quite poor.”

For her dissertation, however, Almoaiqel is taking on an entirely different challenge.

“I’m focusing on using the knowledge that I have and gained through my education here in the U.S. to benefit the socioeconomic status of Saudi Arabia. Specifically, I’m hoping to address a problem in the workplace,” she said.

In Saudi Arabia, cultural norms dictate that genders should be segregated in the workplace. Though it is less common in the private sector, it is a contributing factor to the high unemployment rate for women in the country, with only 22 percent of women participating in the Saudi workforce. Almoaiqel feels she can help.

In her research, Almoaiqel hopes to leverage the use of technology to facilitate communication across Saudi Arabia’s segregated workspaces, enabling women to contribute equally in their careers. “There’s not much participation from females in the workplace,” she shared. “That’s obviously a problem.”

By utilizing technology to connect the workers virtually, Almoaiqel believes Saudi Arabia can move in a direction to benefit the country’s economy while maintaining the traditional values and cultural practices.

“People are graduating and looking to enrich the economy but they can’t do that if they can’t find [appropriate] workplaces,” she explained.

Almoaiqel hopes to conduct case studies at companies to understand the issues they are facing. “Their current tools aren’t meant for this type of interaction — like email or phone.” While easy to use, they don’t allow for deeper collaboration in the long term. As she understands more about what and how certain technologies can be implemented to help, Almoaiqel hopes to mitigate employment issues that result from gender segregation.

With research exploring how to balance technological solutions with Saudi cultural norms, Carroll adds, “Sarah’s project is addressing a complex cultural context, [and these topics] present rich opportunities to learn and to have impact.”

Almoaiqel's vision is a reflection of the evolution of technology in the workplace in Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States.

“Technology is really powerful and in this case, using technology will be empowering for women,” said Almoaiqel. “That’s exactly what I hope to do — empower women by using technology.”

Once she finishes her doctorate degree, she plans to return to Saudi Arabia to put her expertise to use. “I’ve always had it in my heart that I wanted to help my country with this knowledge,” she said. She hopes to earn a faculty position at King Saud University upon returning.

But until then, she’s enjoying her time in IST. “I’ve had so many opportunities and I’m so grateful,” she said.

Last Updated September 05, 2017