Are the MENA's corporate women breaking the global glass ceiling?
More than one in every eight private companies in the Middle East and Africa region is female-owned, according to a latest report by Al Masah Capital.
“Women in the Mena region have made giant strides in the corporate world and are now breaking through the glass ceiling with a new confidence and tangible success,” the report, released last week, says. “Contrary to public perception, a little over one in every eight firms in the region is female-owned. Women from the UAE seem to have achieved the most progress.”
"We will see more... of the social contract between both men and women and the government policies will reflect gender equality beyond the traditional scope of the woman’s role", said Shailesh Dash, CEO of Al-Masah.
“Women in the Mena countries are already geared to lead this change and be at the forefront of this new social contract. They have been spurred on by two influences arising from the Arab Spring and its new order as well as the social inclusion by more progressive states where their role has been widened by official fiat and is now creating a positive ripple effect,” said Shailesh Dash, CEO of Al Masah.
Research by the International Finance Corporation found that, of the 1,228 women business owners in the Mena region, 33 per cent of surveyed enterprises in the UAE were generating more than $100,000 (Dh367,000) per annum, higher than the 13 per cent share among women-owned firms in the US, while more than 50 per cent of the women surveyed in Bahrain and Tunisia were sole owners of their firms. The rates were 48 per cent in Jordan and the UAE. Tunisia-based women-owned firms employed the largest work force of 19.3 workers per firm on an average. Women in Lebanon and Bahrain were found to be the most seasoned, with business experience of 10.6 years and 10.2 years.
“We will see more of this manifestation of the social contract between both men and women and the government policies will reflect gender equality beyond the traditional scope of the woman’s role,” said Dash.
Only 10 per cent of internet entrepreneurs across the world are women, according to Startup Compass, a firm that tracks such things. Except in Amman and other Middle Eastern cities, the share of women entrepreneurs is said to average 35 per cent — an estimate seemingly confirmed by a recent gathering in the Jordanian capital organised by Wamda, a service provider for start-ups.
Although more than half of university graduates in many Middle Eastern countries (51 per cent in Jordan) are women, the workforce is dominated by men (women provide only 21 per cent of it overall. The internet, however, is a new space that is not as heavily male-dominated. The technology also lets entrepreneurs work from home, making it easier to raise children.
The number of women entrepreneurs in the Middle East is likely to grow, including in the least likely places. “Well-educated women in Saudi Arabia want to work, but their family often objects,” explained an entrepreneur at the Wamda discussion. “Running an internet start-up from home is the perfect compromise.”
At a major conference — Arab Women Leadership Forum — Abdul Aziz Al Yakout, Regional Managing Partner at DLA Piper, Kuwait, said, while men have developed a corporate culture of mutual support, which excludes women in general, this mindset needed to change to enable women to realise their full potential. “We have to break the male monopoly in the board rooms,” he said at the forum and went on to say that the will to do so already existed.
A study conducted in the Arab world, showed that 40 per cent of respondents supported a quota for women in boardrooms in the region, albeit a very small one. “The goal, however, should be 50 per cent representation for each gender,” Al Yakout said.
Dash says, his organisation’s findings show that inducting women into political and economic life can help Mena redefine its social contract and this is now happening at a rapid pace. “For example, in a milestone move, the UAE Cabinet made it compulsory for companies and government agencies to appoint women to their boards. We find several myths have been exploded especially the one that women do not make good leaders and decision makers. In the Top 100 successful women list are two Arab women, Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi from UAE [Minister for Foreign Trade] and Lubna Olayan from Saudi Arabia who have set the standard in no uncertain terms.”
Although things are certainly picking up, Dash struck a cautious note by elaborating on the fact that women still faced some obstacles. “Women entrepreneurs in the region continue to face an array of formal barriers such as regulatory and legal challenges, and informal barriers in the form of cultural and social obstacles,” said Dash, adding that these must be addressed so as not to slow down the contribution women are making.
Explicit legal gender differentiation is not uncommon in the region when it comes to access to institutions and use of property. For example, family codes such as head-of-household laws, permission to work, and unilateral divorce laws (in which a man can divorce a woman without her consent) could constrain a woman’s decision-making capacity.
But the fact that these limitations have been recognised is itself a major step in the right direction. The Al Masah report also underscores another issue of great importance. Access to financing is critical for entrepreneurial activity to kick start, and men in the Mena region are far more likely than women to secure funding. Obstacles faced by women include high interest rates, inadequate collateral, absence of prior track record, and complexity in the application process. Female business owners in the region do not have access to the same sources of capital as their male counterparts, as they do not form a part of the same social and business networks.
“We do see a change of heart and the trends are certainly positive,” said Dash. ”We can clearly see that women are going to raise the bar effectively and make their presence felt across the board as professionals and business entrepreneurs.”
Still, being a woman entrepreneur in the Middle East is tough, participants at a recent round table organised by Wamda, said. “It’s sometimes hard to get taken seriously,” said a panellist at the discussion.
“As a woman, you have to fight for everything here — which is a great preparation for being an entrepreneur,” says Sarah Abu Alia, the founder of ArtMedium, a concert organiser.
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