Women at work

A vanguard of women in the MENA region is driving changes in business and society. How can the economic potential of half the region’s population be unleashed?

Arab Innovative Teachers Forum, Morocco, April 2008 ©Rafael Marchante/REUTERS

Hana Barqawi realised her dream of opening her own children's furniture store two years ago in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Ms Barqawi is part of a wave of female entrepreneurs that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa area over the past decade or more. 

She is not surprised: "Arab women are well-educated, openminded, open to new ideas, new cultures, new challenges," she says. Nor has she found cultural attitudes to be a major problem, with Jordanian men accepting the new female business presence. But Ms Barqawi notes that while servants and nannies are available to help with childcare, balancing work and family life has now become a daily juggle for many women like her. But to what extent do Ms Barqawi's experiences reflect those of other women across the Middle East and North Africa region?

This is a key policy question. Sure enough, women have started to emerge in business and government in several MENA countries, with some countries moving faster than others, but overall they represent a small minority. Nor are all women in the region well-educated or indeed able to enter the work force.

Social attitudes and legal norms diverge greatly in the MENA area, as does the pace of change and development. The tide has moved on somewhat since the days when girls in Gulf countries were not expected to go to school, but female illiteracy nevertheless remains widespread. Geography matters, as women in more remote and conservative rural areas have less opportunity to find work or create businesses than women based in cities such as Amman or Marrakech. Social class also matters: the servants that allow some women to run their businesses do not tend to have the same access to education and job prospects as their bosses.

In short, despite evidence of progress, more needs to be done to help all women in the MENA area reach their potential and unleash the economic and social benefits they can bring.

International initiatives are starting to flourish. For instance, the OECD has been working with MENA countries to help make personnel policies in public administration and government more gender-sensitive by examining the likes of legal rules, merit-based selection and promotion, budgetary policies and capacity building, as well as procedures to help parents balance work and family life. The aim is to increase female representation within the public sector, including in decision-making posts.

Such public policies and reform can promote the social and economic development of women, but the real sea change appears to be happening in private business, with commercial exchange transforming the role women play in their economies. Despite diverse social norms and cultures, it is in setting up and running businesses that women across MENA, from Jordan to Morocco, report similar types of problems that policy should address.

Take credit. Even Jordan's Ms Barqawi used her own savings to start her business, and believes that high interest rates and collateral requirements continue to prevent women entrepreneurs in Jordan from taking out bank loans. Micro-credit at very low interest is available in several countries, but compared with, say, France, where a third of entrepreneurs are female, business support for women is still underdeveloped.

Efforts are now under way to address such issues in the MENA area, and since the late 1990s, non-profit organizations to help businesswomen have flourished. From international bodies like the Council of Arab Businesswomen and MENA Businesswomen's Network to national "hubs" like the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Tunisia and active local organisations, including the Dubai Businesswomen's Council, such resources are vital to the MENA area. They not only assist women in setting up a business, but help to build the networks that are vital to drive business creation across the region.

The OECD‘s own focus on women at Marrakech aims to encourage these efforts further. A "Declaration on Fostering Women's Entrepreneurship" was issued at the MENA-OECD Women Business Leaders Forum in Cairo two years ago. It invited governments to support women's entrepreneurship with concrete policies, such as removing gender-related deterrents to entrepreneurship; helping women create business networks at local, national and international levels; developing training programmes; and encouraging the exchange of best practices between MENA and OECD countries.

More progress is expected at the MENA-OECD Business Forum at Marrakech on 22 November when a Women's Business Network, involving women from across the MENA region, will be formally endorsed.* Can such initiatives really make a difference in MENA's challenging environment, especially now when a global economic crisis still unfolds? That is largely up to governments.

There are encouraging developments in countries such as Bahrain, where women made up about 5% of the full-time labour force in the 1960s, compared with nearly 30% of the fulltime workforce in the US. By 2001, women already made up 40% of Bahrain's workforce.

A similar picture can be drawn for the United Arab Emirates, where female-owned businesses faired considerably better than those in the US in 2007, with 33% of the Emirate companies surveyed earning annual revenues of more than US$100,000, compared to only 13% of women-owned businesses in the US in the same year.

How much the experiences of Bahrain and the UAE can be applied to larger MENA countries is a matter of debate, but from 1990 to 2003, women's share of economic activity in the MENA region increased by a fifth, one of the fastest rates of increase anywhere and over six times the worldwide rate.

However, what also seems clear is that male-dominated attitudes have not vanished from the region. In her paper, "Gender Inequalities in the Arab World: Religion, Law or Culture?", Dr Madiha El Safty, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo, explains how Arab women's right to employment, and especially promotion, continued to be compromised in the past decade due to their family obligations as wives and mothers. Starting businesses has been one way of surmounting such problems, and in Egypt, female entrepreneurship is now a vibrant part of private sector activity.

In Morocco, there are obstacles too. For Abdelhak Hoummad-Jdid, Business Creation Consultant for Casa Pionnières in Casablanca, more associations and NGOs are required to offer women "concrete solutions to concrete problems". One reason is income. In Morocco, the estimated per capita income in 2008 was $4,000, compared to about $5,000 in Jordan and nearly $40,000 in the UAE. The Moroccan government has now launched micro-credit programmes to help women entrepreneurs circumvent Moroccan rules that deny women access to bank loans. But since Casa Pionnières, a business incubator launched by the Association des Femmes Chefs d'Entreprise du Maroc, mainly targets women with "innovative" and "ambitious" business projects, small loans are not usually well adapted.

Even in Tunisia, where pro-Western reforms and commitment to women's rights can be traced back to former President Bourguiba in the late 1950s, female-run businesses face challenges. Despite the country's relative head-start, Leyla Khaïat, First Deputy of the Council of Arab Businesswomen and a Senator in the Tunisian Parliament since 2005, remembers the wall she came up against when she took over her late husband's business in 1985. In the face of fundamentalist unrest and gibes that "a company run by a woman was doomed to bankruptcy", Ms Khaïat decided to champion women's "right of initiative and entrepreneurship". Ten years later, she was elected President of the CNFCE. Three years after that, in 1998, Khaïat became President of the Worldwide Network of Women Business Owners (FCEM), which did not count a single country from the MENA region among its members at the time, but now has several.

Ms Khaïat notes that limited access to information and training remains a major disadvantage for female business owners in the MENA area, especially for those with businesses located outside capital cities. Because of women's disproportionately low use of information and communication technology, Ms Khaïat says that the "North-South" digital divide is also a "gender" divide. Ms Khaïat has stressed the role of networks like the Council of Arab Businesswomen, which she helped found in 1999, and the need for the OECD's "precise, scientific research" on women and gender in the MENA region. (See video interview)

The divergences across MENA have also had a dampening effect on gender-related progress. In an interview with an Egyptian newspaper in 2008, the president of the Council of Arab Businesswomen, Sheikha Al-Sabah Hessa of Kuwait, explained that while Arab women's standing has been hindered by cultural customs and policies, the differences between individual political and economic systems has been a major obstacle because they limit the free transfer of capital across Arab countries.

Co-operation and reaching across borders could give MENA women an extra boost, and would have spin-offs beyond MENA countries to the world economy in general. Little wonder then that non-MENA countries are showing such keen interest. In 2006, the US Department of State, as part of its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), co-founded the MENA Businesswomen's Network, a web-based portal with national "network hubs" throughout the region. And in April 2009, the US president appointed Melanne Verveer as the first ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.

Ambassador Verveer, who co-founded the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit international organisation for women, has been developing and co-ordinating activities, like the Corporate Ambassadors Programme, to further women's advancement worldwide. Launched in 2007 by Vital Voices and MEPI, the programme enables emerging female business leaders in the MENA area to meet with high-level American businesswomen. By encouraging women entrepreneurs to share business tools, knowledge and experience, the corporate mentoring programmes are, says Ambassador Verveer, "an invaluable resource" for countries in the MENA region-as well as for the rest of the world. If women are not empowered, half the economy is underused, Ambassador Verveer recently pointed out to the OECD Observer. Moreover, spending on women's programmes is a "high yield" investment, she maintains, since women are so productive and are the low-hanging fruit in investment initiatives. In fact, she says, women-owned new businesses tend to have a better-than-average survival rate, while investing in women triggers "a multiplier effect" that benefits the wider economy and the future. (Watch Ambassador Verveer's short video here.)

The message is clear. A stronger, cleaner and fairer economy, both in MENA and beyond, cannot be built without striking a more even gender balance in business and freeing up the enormous productive potential of women. More people like Jordan's Hana Barqawi could then realise their potential, and the entire Middle East and North Africa region would benefit. Magda Schmit, Rory J. Clarke

Watch also Ambassador Verveer's short video here.

* The MENA-OECD Women’s Business Network was endorsed. Note: The original sentence as indicated was corrected 29 March 2010, to Women's Business Network from Women's Business Council. Our apologies for any inconvenience.


Barsoum, Magda (2008), interview with Cheikha Hissa Al-Sabbah, Al-Ahram Weekly, January.

Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) and the International Financial Corporation (IFC) Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (2007), "Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa: Characteristics, Contributions and Challenges", June.

Clark, Emma (2002), "Arab women lift the veil on business", BBC News, 31 October.

OECD (2007),"Declaration on Fostering Women's Entrepreneurship in the MENA Region", MENA-OECD Investment Programme.

El Safty, Madiha (2003), "Gender Inequalities in the Arab World: Religion, Law or Culture?" Paper presented at the Fourth Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, Florence and Montecatini Terme, organised by the Mediterranean Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, 19-23 March.

Patrikarakos, David (2008), "Women at the heart of strategy", Financial Times Special Report, 23 June.

See also www.genderindex.org

© OECD Observer, No. 275, November 2009 

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