For purposes of mainly Invigorating Female Entrepreneurship in Egypt’s ecosystem, a “SHE CAN – 2019” organized by Entreprenelle, kickstarted by Rania Ayman in 2015 as an organization eventing conferences as a mean to empower and motivate women so as help them believe in their ability to change their destiny.
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SHE CAN 2019, a conference dedicated to MENA women entrepreneurs, hosted its third annual edition at the Greek campus, Downtown Cairo, Egypt, with the theme ‘Successful Failures’. Launched by Entreprenelle, an Egypt-based social enterprise which aims to economically empower women through awareness, education and access to resources, the conference held a wide range of panel discussions, talks and workshops on innovative thinking, creativity, technology, raising capital and invigorating female entrepreneurship in the ecosystem.
Gathering more than 5,000 participants and 50 partners, including UN Women, the Swedish Embassy, the National Council for Women, Nahdet Masr, Avon, Orange and Export Development Bank of Egypt, it also highlighted the endeavors of Entrepenelle alumni. It was also an opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from sessions featuring tips on pitching business ideas, mentorship, as well as startup competitions. Female-founded startups were also able to showcase their products and services in an exhibition area.
Speaking about the conference focusing on the necessity to experience failure on one’s entrepreneurial path, Dorothy Shea, Deputy Ambassador of the US Embassy in Cairo, commented, “As far as I’m concerenced, the sky is the limit. Women should be able to achieve whatever their dreams are. What I was struck by was this idea of “successful failures,” we need to not fear failure, it’s not a destination, it is a stepping stone to success. Sometimes there can be a fear of failure, but as part of this entrepreneurship ecosystem, they are really trying to move that inhibition away. We learn from our failures and then we take our plans to the next level. I was really inspired by this theme.”
Founded in 2015, Entreprenelle has more than 10 entrepreneurship programs conducted in nine governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Aswan.
Halah Al Hamrani is a Saudi martial arts instructor and owner of the FLAG (Fight Like a Girl) Boxing gym in Jeddah. A pioneer in the emerging Saudi women’s fitness industry, Halah teaches women to challenge themselves and push their limits.
Women in Saudi Arabia have typically been discouraged from sports, but as the country starts to open itself up to the outside world and modernising forces are at work in Saudi society, all that is starting to change – Halah is at the forefront of that movement.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Halah to find out how she made it to where she is today, her thoughts on the social changes sweeping her country, and what inspires her to keep pushing boundaries.
“It all started with my love for martial arts, which began when I was twelve. I studied many different styles starting with karate and then going into Muy Thai and kickboxing when I went to the US to study in San Diego. But when I came back to Saudi Arabia, I realised that there was nothing available within sports for women – in fact, it wasn’t huge for men, either.
It was my mother who gave me the idea. She suggested I start teaching, since I was struggling to find a job in the field that I studied – Environmental Studies. I started teaching classes in my parents house, reaching people only through word of mouth – it was before the era of social media! Fast forward to around three years ago, and my Dad told me I needed to find my own space because I’d been using their house for too long, and that’s where FLAG Boxing came in!
I was adamant that I didn’t want to get onto social media, but my sister persuaded me to. When I started out on Instagram, I was recovering from a miscarriage and was in a really bad place. I decided to document my process of getting back into shape, and how I was using sports and training to make myself feel better. It was such a personal journey for me and I didn’t really think about the effect it would have on people.
But it really resonated with people and I started to get a lot of attention, and that’s when I started to realise the impact I could have – especially on Saudi women. I realised that it isn’t normal to see a Saudi woman practicing martial arts, and it’s certainly not normal for her to put it out there in the public domain so people can see. It’s great that my journey has inspired people, although that was never my intention to begin with. My passion for the sport is what fuels me, and I’m so happy to have that.
Things really took off when National Geographic came to interview me for their piece on ‘The Changing Face of Saudi Women’, although I was really naïve and had no idea it was going to be so big!”
Halah has since appeared in major media outlets around the world and, not only has she inspired Saudi women to take care of their bodies, but she has unintentionally become an icon of women’s empowerment in her country and around the world. What she has achieved is especially remarkable given that she lives in a country where the fitness industry is very new.
We asked her what it’s been like leading this new movement, and what opportunities and challenges the rapid growth of the health and fitness industry presents for Saudi women:
“The fitness industry in Saudi has grown ridiculously quickly over the last three years. For the eleven years prior that I was teaching, there was nothing. We weren’t even allowed to open facilities for women, so not much was happening and anything that did take place was in the private sphere. The government has become very supportive of the industry – they’re trying to promote it as much as possible and bring sports events to the country, for example, last year we had the Mohammed Ali Cup, the MMA, football… And women are allowed to participate now, not just men.
Of course, I worry that the momentum might be too much, that it’s all happening too fast and it might meet resistance. It would be very hard for us mentally to go from this position, where there’s so much excitement and optimism, if it suddenly came to a halt – but that’s always a possibility in this country.
There has been some pushback, but not as much as you might imagine. I think the fact that 70% of the population is under the age of 30 works in our favour, because they really want to move forward. So as long as the government continues as it is and the King continues with the changes that he wants to see happening, I think we’re in a good place, inshallah.
One of the challenges is that people live quite a sedentary lifestyle here, and this is becoming worse thanks to social media and the internet. I see this first-hand as an instructor: it’s difficult to teach people who have never worked out in their lives and don’t have that muscle memory. This is particularly the case for Saudi women, as the only women who have ever practiced any kind of sport are those who went to private schools or spent time abroad. This is only a small percentage of the population, and even then, in most cases it hasn’t been sustained. So it’s hard for people, often they don’t move very easily and it takes a long time to train them.
It’s also a cultural thing: because everyone drives here the sedentary lifestyle has become the norm. But even that is starting to change now; people are out walking, here in Jeddah there is a running group, and you have women who are really trying to change those social norms.”
Not coincidentally, the rapid growth of the fitness industry has happened alongside major social changes taking place in Saudi society, as the government seeks to open the country to the outside world and create new opportunities for Saudi citizens – particularly women.
We asked Halah how she feels about the social changes taking place, and how she responds to the stereotypes of Saudi women that often prevail in the Western media.
“There are huge changes happening for women in Saudi at the moment. For example, lifting the driving ban has completely changed my life! It’s not only given us physical freedom but economic freedom as well, as it’s lifted a huge barrier for women to work. I actually still have my driver because I don’t want to fire him, but he doesn’t really do anything now so I joke with him that he should be training in the gym!
I think the biggest challenge facing Saudi women now is realising mentally what they can accomplish and having the confidence to do it. Opportunities are opening up, everything is there and available for women now, but the hardest thing is changing how they think, and getting them to make the move towards doing whatever they want to do.
There are still frustrating stereotypes of Saudi women in the media internationally, although I do understand where this comes from; Very few foreign journalists were allowed into the country before the current King took over, so they had no idea what Saudi women were really like. So I can understand why these stereotypes exist, but it bothers me when journalists come to the country with these stereotypes in mind and don’t actually want to learn the truth about how we really live. We are not oppressed; we may live within our means and within the expectations of our government, but we are still strong and empowered. Often journalists aren’t interested in hearing that because it’s not going to make a good story, so they end up repeating the same stereotypes and reinforcing what people in other countries think they know about us.
Social change takes time, and even the most liberal countries are still moving towards gender equality and fighting those battles. I think the most important thing – and something we don’t see enough of anywhere in the world – is that women continue to support and lift each other up every day. We all have our own struggles, and instead of competing we should support one another.”
Halah’s story of fearless boundary pushing and creating her own success is hugely inspiring for women, not only in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but around the world. When we asked her about her own role models, her answer was surprising.
“The women I teach in the gym! Especially the ones who work really hard – I’ve done sports all my life so it comes naturally to me. But for these women it doesn’t, they haven’t developed the mentality that goes along with the practice. You have to know how to push yourself, when to push yourself – and it’s not something you develop right away, it happens over many years. And these women are trying to develop that without those years of practice.
When someone puts themselves in a situation where they’re working beyond what they’re comfortable with, that is a true inspiration to me. That’s why I love my job so much, because these women – the ones who really want to try and to work hard – they’re incredible. So I would say they are my number one inspiration, which is great because I get them on a daily basis!”
Having accomplished what many Saudis just a few years ago would have thought impossible, we asked Halah what advice she would give her younger self?
“It gets better. When I was young I had a hard time because I had ADD, so I suffered a lot in school and always thought of myself as a stupid kid because nobody really understood what it was at the time. So they would point at me like, ‘Oh, she’s the naughty kid, she doesn’t study…’ In fact, that’s actually why I gravitated toward sports, because I was able to excel in it. I needed it to feel good about myself because without it I constantly felt like a failure. So I would tell myself, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay’. Because so much of the time I thought I wasn’t.”
And what’s next for Halah and FLAG Boxing…?
“One of my goals at the moment is to go to some of the more remote cities in Saudi to give boxing and self-defence classes to women and promote women’s empowerment. That’s one of the many things on my list.
When I started teaching my goal was to spread the sport, to get women active and moving, and that turned into a goal to get girls into competitions. We need to be working with the younger generation to help them build up their skills. It’s a long process and it won’t happen overnight. We can bring in new competitions – and we are – but developing incredible athletes will take years. It’s a generational thing and we have to start with the youngest.
We have just started a programme for kids, but we need more people and more coaches. It’s a challenge; on the one hand, we’re going through a stage as a country where we’re trying to get more Saudis into the workforce, but that can be difficult when you’re recruiting coaches, because you need people who have trained their whole lives, and because it’s such a new thing in our country we just don’t have that. So for now, we need to recruit coaches from abroad.
I’m also working with a friend in Bahrain to put together a self-defence programme for women, which I’m really excited about. For a lot of women in this country, the main reason for their interest in boxing is self-defence, for whatever reason. This is something I’ve wanted to do for fifteen years and I’ve finally found the right person to work with. We’re hoping to launch it within the year, inshallah.
So I’m excited and I’m happy to get up in the morning. I know I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, and that’s my driving force!”
We can’t wait to see what’s next for Halah as she continues to push for women’s empowerment and inspire women worldwide to test their limits and see what they’re capable of. To keep up with her inspiring work, follow @flagboxing on Instagram.
If Halah’s story inspired you, you might also enjoy:
A proclamation in support
of women to carry or metaphorically shoulder the weight of half of all life’s
endeavours and Mao Zedong was its author.
It is nowadays used in arguments aimed at trying to lower gender
inequality and potentially turn oppression into opportunity for women
worldwide. The infamous political glass ceiling has yet to get rid of and prove
that women are a resource that ought to be deployed. Women empowerment and
leadership have made strides in the workplace, but a lot remains to be done,
especially in MENA countries.
The story below from An Englishwoman in Algeria is a good point in case, for today, March 8, International Women’s Day, in Algeria, where as it happens, there will coincidently be massive street demonstrations against the reconduction of an aging and ailing male president to yet another and fifth term in office.
Amidst the chaotic swirl of colour and noise that
was our wedding, I had found a quiet corner where I could chat to two of T’s
young cousins. They were like teenagers anywhere, giggly and bespectacled,
showing off their best party frocks, and for me, they brought a reassuring air
of normality to proceedings.
I felt a tap on my shoulder — one that demanded my immediate attention. I
turned around to meet a pair of shrewd black eyes belonging to a small woman
who was scrutinising me, hands on hips, head thrown back and feet
planted wide apart. My mother-in-law, fluttering anxiously next to the unknown
woman, eyes darting from me to her, was wringing her hands and smiling
Both of them seemed advanced in years to my
twenty-two-year-old eyes, but they were probably only in early middle age, my
mother-in-law in her late forties and her aunt, her father’s sister, for so her
companion turned out to be, perhaps ten years older. But there the similarities
mother-in-law had skin like crumpled white silk, moist blue eyes and the
comfortably rounded contours of someone who had been cosseted practically all
her life. By contrast, her aunt, Fatouma, or NaF’touma, as she was known,
seemed much older, her frame spare and rawboned, her weatherbeaten skin
withered like that of an overripe apple. Her nose was a hawk’s
beak, her small eyes sharp as she scanned the room.
dress hung off her shoulders — no womanly curves for her — and her headscarf was devoid of the customary decorative
fringe and embroidered edging. It was rusty black, embellished only with a few
forlorn woollen tassels, from under which poked wispy strands of greying hair,
all that was left of what had once been a shimmering black curtain, cloaking
her shoulders and curling down her back.
past had been full of the worst memories any life can offer — those of
war and loss. At the outbreak of the independence struggle, she had taken
up her shotgun and fought like a man with the other moudjahidine.
Not for her the role usually carved out for women in the maquis — that of a nurse or a cook.
She was not a city-dweller, like those other young
girls who had planted bombs in the bustling cafés and ice-cream parlours on the
elegant rue d’Isly, but a highland Berber with the blood of
generations of warriors running through her veins. Her battlefield had
been the inhospitable mountains of Kabylie. She had greeted T, when he had
ventured back up to the village after the cease-fire, with the words,”Why
aren’t you dead…” — leaving the rest of the sentence — “….like all the others?”
realised that it was important to my mother-in-law that her son’s choice of a
bride meet with her aunt’s approval. I seem to have passed the test with
flying colours, as every time I saw her at family weddings during
the ensuing years, she would envelop me in a bear hug, thump me on the back and
bellow greetings in my ear. She had an irrepressible joie de
vivre and lived every day as a gift, something extra she had never
expected, but had been given. I think that is why she lived to such a ripe old
age. She was a woman of steel, refusing to be beaten down by the years.
have been many such women of steel in Algeria. Berber women had a
reputation for being in the vanguard of any battle alongside their men, and
later, when I was to learn more about Algerian history, I became familiar
with the stories about the legendary Berber queen, Dihya, called the Kahina, (the Seer), the fabled Tin Hinan,
Tuareg Queen of the Campfires, as well as countless heroines who had taken up
armed combat to resist the French, like the nineteenth-century Lalla Fadhma
had become the war leader of the Berber tribes in the latter part of the
seventh century, ferociously opposing the encroaching Arab armies, who had
already captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage. Searching for another
enemy to defeat, they had been told that the most powerful monarch in North
Africa was “the Queen of the Berbers” and accordingly marched into what is now
Algeria. The armies fought the Battle of the Camels in the present-day
province of Oum el-Bouaghi, and the Arab armies were soundly defeated, only to return four or five years later.
Parallels can be drawn with Boudicca, as Dihya then
embarked on a desperate scorched earth campaign. She was finally defeated at
Tabarka, near the Tunisian border. According to legend, she died fighting the
invaders, sword in hand — a warrior’s death. Other accounts say she committed
suicide by swallowing poison rather than be taken by the enemy.
there are no contemporary likenesses of the Kahina, she is often represented in idealised portraits and
statues. For Berbers, these serve as confirmation that they, as a people, are
strong and will not be conquered or diminished by others, and shows their support for the progressive ideals Dihya represents.
less is known about Tin Hinan, the mythical Tuareg Queen of
the Campfires. The Berber Tuareg are a matriarchal society, and she was
supposed to have been a fourth-century Tuareg queen. Many historians
believed that she had not really existed, but her monumental tomb was
discovered in the early twentieth century near an oasis over a thousand
kilometres south of Algiers.
tomb, of which the walls were decorated with inscriptions in tifinagh,
was found to contain the skeleton of a tall woman, belonging to a Mediterranean
race, lying on a wooden litter with her head facing east. She was wearing
heavy gold and silver jewellery, some of it adorned with pearls. The funerary
artefacts found buried with her all date from the third and fourth centuries.
have already written about Fadhma N’Soumer,
who led the Kabyle armed resistance against the French, who were
seeking to bring Kabylie under their control in the nineteenth century. She was
finally defeated at the Battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my
husband’s village, in 1857. Once captured by French forces, she was imprisoned
until her death six years later. She is known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.
course, strong Algerian women are not confined to the Berbers, not do they all
belong to ancient history. The bravery of the young women who fought during the
independence struggle, including Zohra Drif, Djamila Boupacha,
Djamila Bouhired, Hassiba Ben Bouali and others, like NaF’touma, cannot be
praised enough, even though many of them have been forgotten since.
there had been a strangely ambivalent attitude towards women. Externally, the FLN pursued policies that
highlighted women’s participation in the war. El Moudjahid, the
FLN newspaper, sought to propagate the idea of the female
warrior, venerating her as a martyr if she were killed, and
extolling her as a linchpin of the independence struggle.
Internally, however, a statement made by an FLN
commander best illustrates attitudes towards women. He said, and I
quote: “In an independent Algeria, Muslim women’s freedom will stop at the
door of their home. Women will never be equal to men.” The involvement of
women in the war effort, especially those who were literate and from an
urban environment, sometimes made their often-illiterate male counterparts
After the war, although their help and support had
been vital, women, regardless of their involvement and contributions to
the conflict, were forced back into their pre-war subservience by
Algeria’s prevailing social, religious, and cultural climate. It was as if
they were being told, “Mission accomplished. Thank you for your help. Now get
back to your kitchens.”
have come to the conclusion that if some Algerian men are like this, it’s
because Algerian women are strong, resourceful and brave and men find them
too assertive, seeking to curtail their development by any means, even by the
infamous 1984 Family Code, which reduced women to the statute of minors, to be under the authority of their fathers, brothers, husbands and
sons for their whole lives. For me, this male attitude is a betrayal
of those heroic Algerian women who have fought for their own freedom and that
of their country throughout the centuries.
The UAE has been ranked as the top country in the
Middle East and North Africa for wage equality, according to a new report
released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
However, the UAE’s performance on the WEF’s Global
Gender Gap Report 2018’s wage equality indicator saw a slight decrease
compared to last year, a statement said.
The Emirates also topped the region in terms of the
number of women in ministerial positions, with improvements recorded in gender
parity in the legislators, senior officials and managers and healthy life
Overall, the report found that despite the gender
gap across the MENA region closing narrowly in 2018, it remains the world’s
least gender-equal region.
It will take the Middle East and North Africa
economies “153 years to close the gender gap at the current rate of change”, the report stated.
While Tunisia topped the region for gender equality
– ranking 119 globally, the UAE ranked 121 with the gender gap closed at 64.2
per cent. Saudi Arabia, ranked 141 with a 59 per cent gender gap rate, showed
“modest progress”, with improvement in wage equality and women’s labour force
participation, the report stated.
Globally, the report found that the global gender
gap only slightly reduced in 2018, as stagnation in the proportion of women in
the workplace and women’s declining representation in politics, along with
greater inequality in access to health and education, offset improvements in
wage equality and the number of women in professional positions.
According to the report, the world has closed 68
per cent of its gender gap, as measured across four key pillars: economic
opportunity; political empowerment; educational attainment; and health and survival.
Last year was the first since the report began
publishing in 2006 that the gap between men and women widened.
At the current rate of change, the report indicated
that it will take 108 years to close the overall gender gap and 202 years to
bring about parity in the workplace.
Globally, having closed more than 85.8 per cent of
its overall gender gap, Iceland topped the list for the 10th
consecutive year. It was followed by Norway, Sweden, Finland and Nicaragua.
“The economies that will succeed in the Fourth
Industrial Revolution will be those that are best able to harness all their
available talent,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the
“Proactive measures that support gender parity and
social inclusion and address historical imbalances are therefore essential for
the health of the global economy as well as for the good of society as a
The report also found that while the income gap
between men and women has become narrower, fewer women are participating in the
“This a worrisome development for which there are a
number of potential reasons,” the report said.
“One is that automation is having a
disproportionate impact on roles traditionally performed by women. At the same
time, women are under-represented in growing areas of employment that require
STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and knowledge.
Another potential reason is that the infrastructure needed to help women enter
or re-enter the workforce – such as childcare and eldercare – is
under-developed and unpaid work remains primarily the responsibility of women,”
the report explained.
“The corollary is that the substantial investments
made by many economies to close the education gap are failing to generate
optimal returns in the form of growth.”
According to Saadia Zahidi, head of the Centre for
the New Economy and Society and member of the WEF managing board, industries
must “proactively hardwire gender parity in the future of work through
effective training, reskilling and upskilling interventions and tangible job
“It’s in their long-term interest because diverse
businesses perform better,” she added.
This article was written by Kelly Ommundsen, Community Lead, Digital Economy and Society System Initiative, World Economic Forum and Khaled Kteily, Founder and CEO, Legacy posted on the World Economic Forum of July 21, 2018, does bring to the fore only what has been happening throughout the MENA region’s diverse youth. Urbanised as never before, these are in increasing numbers educated and open onto the world. And a fact that is more and more obvious on the ground is that Arab women outnumber men in pursuing university degrees, but . . . . how is this fact affecting the rest of the region’s populations?
The Brookings back in 2015 noted in its website that “Echoing the trend observed globally, women in the Arab world outnumber men in pursuing university degrees.” However, it added that “For Arab women, hard-won progress in education has not earned them the economic progress they deserve. Although young women seek and succeed in tertiary education at higher rates than young men, they are far less likely to enter and remain in the job market. Understanding and tackling the barriers that hinder women from working would unlock Arab women’s potential and yield significant social and economic benefits to every Arab State.”
It remains however that according to the World Bank, “Thirteen of the 15 countries with the lowest rates of women participating in their labour force are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report (2015). Yemen has the lowest rate of working women of all, followed by Syria, Jordan, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Oman, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Turkey.”
“So, why is women’s participation in the workforce so low in MENA, especially when the education rate is at parity for girls and boys, and especially when, often, the girls outperform the boys?”
Here is the WEF’s article that covers that segment of activities as helped today by all the ‘smart’ technological advances of recent years.
Palestinian entrepreneur Samar Hijjo developed an app for women during pregnancy. Image: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
It may surprise some to learn that one in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by women. That’s a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Women are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the start-up scene across the Middle East. Because the tech industry is still relatively new in the Arab world, there is no legacy of it being a male-dominated field. Many entrepreneurs from the region believe that technology is one of the few spaces where everything is viewed as possible, including breaking gender norms, making it a very attractive industry for women.
Despite many challenges, including societal pressure on women to stay at home, a digital gender gap, and structural disadvantages in fund-raising and investments, female entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to overcome barriers to entering the workforce and starting their own business.
Key to these efforts has been their ability to leverage the internet and engage through online platforms to reach new markets. They are able to work from home if they wish. As Saadia Zahidi argues in her book Fifty Million Rising, these digital platforms allow women to be unimpeded by cultural constraints or safety issues, and they lower the implicit and explicit transaction costs of transport, childcare, discrimination and social censure.
Finding how to tap into this valuable resource of highly educated women could be a game changer for the region. Given the market power of women’s increasing participation in the workforce, which by 2025 could add an estimated $2.7 trillion to the region’s economy, the growing trend of women in start-ups could be transformative for the Middle East.
Unlocking the potential of female start-ups
The rise of women in the Arab world starts early, with girls outperforming their male peers in school. In Jordan, girls do better than boys in school in nearly all subjects and at every age level, from grade school to university. When it comes to STEM subjects (which include skills critical to launching and running a start-up in the Fourth Industrial Revolution) several Arab countries are among the global leaders in terms of the proportion of female STEM graduates. According to UNESCO, 34-57% of STEM grads in Arab countries are women, which is much higher than in universities in the US or Europe.
Despite the fact that many Arab women are thriving in school and graduating with advanced degrees, this success has not necessarily translated to the job market or the start-up world. Many women are instead staying at home, whether from choice or because of cultural, social or familial pressures. In fact, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world, according to the World Bank.
Restrictive laws in many countries across the region put women who wish to join or start their own businesses at a disadvantage. These include prohibitions against women opening up a bank account or owning property, limited freedom of movement without a male guardian and constraints on interactions with men who are not in their family, as well as further cultural and attitudinal stigmas.
In fact, even women who do start a company face structural disadvantages. On average, female-led start-ups receive 23% less money than male-run firms, and are 30% less likely to have a positive exit, according to the OECD.
Changing the ecosystem, one woman at a time
To close this gap, the entrepreneurship ecosystem needs more women. One data point makes this clear: venture firms with one or more female partners are twice as likely to invest in a start-up which has women in the management team, and three times more likely to invest in a company with a female CEO.
This is also true for female founders. Female-owned businesses hire more women (25%) than their male counterparts do (22%), according to the World Bank. Female-owned firms also employ a higher percentage of women in managerial roles, helping women to climb up the ladder, compared to those who are only hired for lower, unskilled positions. And women-led businesses are hiring more workers in general. In Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, firms run by women are growing their workforces at higher rates than those run by men. Womena is an investing platform based in Dubai, dedicated to encouraging gender diversity and inclusion in tech. It believes that in order to increase the number of female tech entrepreneurs, you need to build networks of women that can help support one another to grow and thrive. Role models are also important, such as HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who studied computer science before opening one of the region’s first B2B marketplaces. She is best known for being the first woman to hold ministerial posts in the UAE, as Minister of Economy and Planning, Minister of State for International Cooperation, and then Minister of State for Tolerance.
Womena co-founder Elissa Freiha also believes that investing time, energy and money into female entrepreneurs will pay huge dividends.
“Women from the Arab World need to fight. The struggles they face in society, in their communities and sometimes even in their families create an amazing resilience that makes these women incredible entrepreneurs. If given the right platform, these women can become the business owners and leaders for the future of the region.”
Go digital, young woman
Digital represents a key opportunity for women in the region to solve technical and societal challenges. For example, Egypt-born Rana El Kaliouby is the co-founder of Affectiva, which has developed cutting-edge AI technology to help computers recognize human emotions based on physiological responses and facial cues. Meanwhile, Loulou Khazen Baz founded the Middle East’s first freelance marketplace, Nabbesh, as a way to help tackle the region’s youth unemployment. She has been recognized as one of the World Economic Forum’s 100 Arab Start-Ups Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As Zahidi writes in Fifty Million Rising “If the narrative of American expansion was ‘Go West, young man’, the new narrative for up-and-coming women in the Arab World may well be ‘Go digital, young woman’.”
Evidence points to this being the case. Nearly 60% of women who are not currently employed believe that flexible hours and working from home, full- or part-time – which going digital can enable – would help them find work, showed a study by Accenture. The digital economy is also opening up opportunities for women looking to get back into the job market. The same study points out that more than 60% of women who have left and want to rejoin the workforce have entrepreneurial aspirations to start their own business.
Crucially, studies from the US demonstrate that gender pay gaps are lower in industries where there are more flexible work arrangements. Moreover, women who gain ICT skills increase their wages by 12%, which is higher than equivalent gains in men’s salaries. With a large market potential, a low amount of resources needed to get started, and productivity efficiencies enabled by technology, digital opens up a whole new world of opportunities and possibilities.
Paving the way forward
Many incredible women across the region are paving the way forward, such as Joy Ajlouny, who recently helped close a $41 million Series B funding round for UAE-based Fetchr, or Gaza Sky Geeks, the first tech hub in Gaza providing mentorship to start-ups with a focus on women. But there is still a long way to go. The digital gender gap in Arab states remains at 17.3%, down from 19.2% in the last four years, according to the ITU. Women are still a minority across the entire start-up ecosystem.
But as more women throughout the Arab World start their own businesses, break down gender barriers and push through the glass ceiling, these pioneers become an example for other women. They inspire them to imagine what’s possible for an Arab woman in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Markaz of Brookings Doha Center published this article written by Firas Masri, Research Assistant at the Doha Center, on February 6th, 2017, so as to make a clear point with regards to women generally not only of the GCC countries but possibly of the wider region of the MENA countries. These do indeed share the cultual, cultural and historical background that for centuries bore on all beings, particularly women of all ages and social backgrounds. According to FS_Masri, employment of women would not impinge on that of the men but could also help the economies of those countries; she does make a point that preoccupied many and notably the European Union. It said in its study that examined the economic, political and socio-cultural changes which have affected the situation of women in the Gulf region over the last decades by focusing on women’s rights and gender equality in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and provided a socio-cultural, political and economic analysis of women’s situation in the Gulf region. Firas Masri in her essay looks at more recent trends and gives us an outlook that is not different from that of the EU’s. So, is it Women at the rescue of the MENA Economies ?
Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to search for ways to repair their fragile economies. For some countries in the region, experts wonder whether high unemployment and poor economic growth could precipitate another round of political upheaval, similar to the uprisings in early 2011.
Despite this ominous scenario, there is one strategy that MENA governments persistently overlook to ease economic pressures: increasing female employment, a topic that Bessma Momani explores in a recent Brookings policy brief. Momani explains that the lack of female representation in MENA workforces limits economic growth in the region. She also argues that government policies encouraging greater female participation in the workforce will have a host of other economic and social benefits, in addition to boosting GDP. Furthermore, Momani contends: “introducing diversity through gender parity will benefit economic growth and can help Arab countries generate prosperity—as well as the normative and social imperative of change.”
Unfortunately, as Momani outlines, several barriers impede women in MENA from joining the labor force. In order to counter this, in her view, MENA governments should conduct gender impact studies for regional policymakers to understand how policies shape cultural attitudes toward gender. MENA governments manage primary and secondary school curricula, which studies have shown contain direct and indirect gender biases in the national education curriculum. Momani’s research shows that such gender impact studies could expose the types of gendered language used in textbooks that help reinforce male-dominated workforces in the region. Government-sponsored internships allocated for women could overcome stereotypes in industries previously gendered as masculine, she adds.
Other factors that prevent women from entering the workforce in MENA countries include the following: low salaries, early retirement, underwhelming job benefits, difficulty securing capital for entrepreneurial ventures, and harassment in public spaces. By addressing these concerns in the short-term, Momani argues that regional governments will lay the foundation for economic prosperity in the long-term. Regional policymakers face an enormous challenge if they address these issues simultaneously. Nevertheless, with many economies in the region facing a grim outlook for 2017, she contends that it would behoove them to seriously consider policies that encourage more women to join the workforce.
Women’s full employment in MENA could increase household incomes by as much as 25 percent:
According to a World Bank report, “women’s employment can significantly improve household income—by as much as 25 percent—and lead many families out of poverty.” It continues that increased household income will not only positively impact MENA economies on the micro level, but it will bolster economies on the macro level as well. The IMF supports this claim by noting that from 2000 to 2011, the region
“could have gained $1 trillion in cumulative output (equivalent to doubling average real GDP growth during the past decade) if female labor force participation had been raised enough to narrow the gender gap from triple to double the average for other emerging market and developing countries.”
Momani’s new research indicates that such predictions remain relevant today.
Higher female employment rates could reduce poverty due to lower birth rates and improvements in child welfare:
As Momani further discusses, echoing other researchers, greater economic opportunity for women could contribute to reducing poverty. Research by the National Institutes of Health, for one, has shown that financially independent women demonstrate a greater ability to support their children, which greatly improves child welfare. Momani points to studies showing that women in the beginning stages of their careers—especially younger women, who make family planning decisions later in life—tend to have fewer and healthier children, as well as higher earnings, which can reduce poverty rates among youth.
Women-led households save more money:
Momani’s brief illuminates that as working women gain financial independence—and in some cases become the breadwinner of the family—they can gain more decisionmaking power in the family. As one gender equality study she cites argues: “Women’s propensity to save is greater than men’s, and women’s consumption focuses to a greater extent on the children and on household necessities.” As another report shows, this change in the household dynamic will also boost regional economic growth in the short-term, which will lead to sustainable economic development in the long term.
Even in households where financial responsibilities are shared equally among men and women, a cross-country panel study of semi-industrialized nations found “that an increase in women’s wage share relative to men is associated with increase in the domestic savings rate.” Whether women take sole responsibility of household financial matters or share this responsibility with their spouse, the benefits of this development will make families in MENA more fiscally secure, Momani shows.
If women were employed at the same rate as men, they would contribute $2.7 trillion to regional GDP by 2025, a 47 percent increase:
According to a McKinsey report, if MENA countries close the gender gap in the labor force, the region could see an additional $2.7 trillion added to MENA countries’ GDP by 2025. Momani concludes that Arab countries must overcome numerous cultural and societal challenges to stimulate increased female participation in the labor force, but by initiating policy changes that encourage a shift in this dynamic, MENA countries will find themselves more financially secure in the future.