Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Women’s business woes

Female entrepreneurs in the MENA region still face multiple challenges, reports Nesma Nowar

Women’s business woes
Women’s business woes
Al-Ahram Weekly

Academics and practitioners agree that female entrepreneurship plays a significant role in socio-economic development. By introducing innovations to markets, women can create employment, including self-employment, and contribute to wealth creation.

The female employment rate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, however, is the lowest in the world. The few women who become entrepreneurs face multiple challenges.

Besides the hardship of starting a new business faced by most entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs in the region have to deal with the cultural stigma that can attach to working women, an issue mulled over at the recent conference “Women in Business: Key to Economic Growth”.

The conference was organised by the AmCham Egypt Women in Business Committee in cooperation with the AmCham MENA Council.

Ghuzayyah Hijazi, co-founder and qualitative research specialist at Analyseize Research, a Jordanian market research company, started her business when she was 23. She said she suffered from restrictions related to opening a new business in Jordan, like the requirement of having a minimum of $50,000 in order to start. This “was too much at the time I started in 2004,” Hijazi said at the conference.

She added that the lack of training for young entrepreneurs has been a major problem. During the first few years, she and her sister needed training to effectively run their business, but there were not enough training courses on offer at the time.

In addition to these obstacles, Hijazi and other female entrepreneurs present at the conference said that they faced gender biases, some of which are unconscious prejudices that can be attributed to the way men and women are raised in Middle Eastern societies. Hijazi said that she had found that male employees at her company were not at ease taking orders or instructions from young women like herself.

The same issue was expressed by Mounaz Abdel-Raouf, founder of Okhtein, an online site selling original bags and clothing. She said that she constantly faces difficulties when dealing with local craftsmen who produce most of her products.

“Egypt is a male-driven society, no doubt,” Abdel-Raouf said. Some of the men she has worked with do not respect women or their work, posing a challenge for her company, which she runs with her sister.

Women’s leadership still attracts a cultural stigma in the MENA region. Mariam Farrag, head of corporate social responsibility at the MBC Group, said that although 50 per cent of senior leadership positions in her company are held by women, there is still a cultural stigma around women in leadership roles.

“The fact is that women taking leadership roles has still not been absorbed in our region or around the world,” Farrag said.

She said that there is still a stigma around working women, who are often seen as mothers and in need of male protection or guardianship due to attitudes that fail to recognise women’s independence and leadership.

She said that her company, a leading broadcaster in the region, was trying to show success stories of women to make it clear to other women that they can succeed in a society that does not necessarily believe in their capabilities.

Farrag added that women in the region face huge challenges at the grassroots level, like in the case of the refugees who have recently become a major issue in the Middle East. She said that women refugees are often compelled to marry at a young age “so as not to become a burden on their families”.

In the MENA region, it is not only men who can be judgmental of women, but some women can be too, she said.

“Some women say that women can’t work and be mothers at the same time. They think that a woman’s role is in the home,” Farrag said. “Women in the region are not supportive. They are too jealous of each other.”

This image of working women in the region, as well as their exclusion or stereotyping as a result of gender bias, has been attributed to a mindset acquired through the way men and women are raised.

Men and women in the Middle East are brought up in a way that relates men to the workplace and women to the home, whether it is in their parents’ or their husbands’ homes.

Panelists at the conference concurred that addressing and defeating this mindset will require efforts by both men and women, and stressed the importance of engaging men to renew gender discourse and overcome the problem.

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