We need more women entrepreneurs. As the female chair of a bank, being outnumbered by Y chromosomes in a boardroom is an experience all too familiar for me. But surely, unlike the traditional, male-dominated financial industry, are other sectors - like tech startups - are doing better in advancing equality of opportunity?
It is not quite that simple. Across the world, leadership in the startup scene remains largely off-limits to women. For instance, they account for only 10 per cent of Internet entrepreneurs, by some estimates.
Regional bright spot for women business leaders
It is the Middle East, however, that displays some of the most positive figures: it has been calculated that a third or more of tech entrepreneurs here are women - that is a greater share than in Silicon Valley. In the UAE alone, over 30 per cent of businesses set up and run by women generate revenues worth greater than $100,000. This compares with just 13 per cent in the US.
The region is also home to the highest proportion of women entrepreneurs who are the sole owners of their company. They account for 40 per cent of Lebanese female business leaders; in Bahrain this figure rises to 60 per cent.
Overall, the annual growth in the number of Middle East startups over the past three years has been calculated at 46.2 per cent - with a quarter of these new firms being founded by women.
Good for the economy, good for equality
Such figures are doubtless promising indicators of gender equality. They point to the private sector's ability to bring about hard change in the real economy. After all, while every new business supports the creation of jobs, more women-owned companies would help to balance out the workforce, which - particularly in the Middle East - remains far from a 50:50 split. More female entrepreneurs will serve as role models for girls and daughters to look up to, gradually breaking down social pressures against working women.
More than that, of course, it will put money in their pockets, making them less dependent on their husbands and families and allowing them to be more active contributors to the local economy.
Overall, the positive effects on employment and economic development could be considerable. Some estimate that if women continue to enter the workforce at the current rate, they could add some $600 billion to regional GDP over the next decade, boosting it by over 47 per cent.
Finance needs to help maintain momentum
Challenges remain, however. Last year, almost 70 per cent of women-led startups in the Middle East were denied funding. Female entrepreneurs need access to finance if they are to unlock the potential of their businesses and, in so doing, encourage other budding women business leaders to follow their success.
We need a change of mindset from the financial sector. A woman may know that she can lead a profitable venture; her company and colleagues may know it too. But investors and banks - which hold the keys to the funding that will allow her business to grow and thrive - must do more to open up to the idea. We also need the banking industry to ensure that financial inclusion continues to advance in the Middle East.
In this part of the world, women remain severely underserved by the financial sector; they are already over-represented among the world's "unbanked" population (those without access to basic financial services). Without sustained progress in financial inclusion, women risk missing out on the region's growth potential.
The promising steps taken in the Middle East are vital to improving women's clout, respect and agency across the region. It is hard evidence that women they are finding the means of winning equality, both in the boardroom and in the home. But the financial sector needs to step up to the plate, and do more to support such progress.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Al Bawaba Business or its affiliates.
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