Women in business: the only way is up

With the number of female entrepreneurs growing around the world, Vision reports on the great strides women have made in setting up their own successful global business empires

Women in the Middle East are more innovative than men, with 23 per cent of women entrepreneurs creating an innovative product or service compared with 18 per cent for their male counterparts, according to the latest report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). In the space of a decade, the region is expected to see an increasing number of female entrepreneurs, with more women intending to start businesses than men. However, for now, it is estimated that less than one third of all businesses in the Middle East are led by women, and the number of female business founders is still lagging behind men.

We are in a time when technology is a hot and exciting field and we want girls to recognise this is something they want to do

Reshma Saujan, Founder of US-based Girls Who Code

Haifa Al Kaylani, who can be easily described as a role model for many Arab women, is working to change that. While her contributions to the advancement of women in the region are plenty, perhaps her most notable accomplishment is the founding of the London-based Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF), which she chairs. The non-profit, non-political and non-governmental organisation connects Arab women with their counterparts globally, bridging cultures, creating understanding and helping foster business collaboration.

Al Kaylani, a Lebanese of Palestinian origin, recalls when the UK Department of Trade and Industry asked her in 1999 to help organise a conference with Arab and British businesswomen leaders. After two such conferences, the AIWF was born in 2001. “The two main foundations of AIWF were my strong belief that there is no economic or social development within any community without women playing their rightful role,” says Al Kaylani. “Secondly, the Arab world is at the heart of the global community and women here need to be their own best ambassadors, to go out and speak about themselves and for themselves… and to do business.”

Today, the AIWF has members from some 45 countries, includes women from all walks of life, charging them a nominal membership fee. The AIWF holds conferences to discuss women’s issues regionally and internationally, and makes recommendations after each event to policymakers or private sector entities. “We place them where they need to be heard by people in authority who can make a difference,” as Al Kaylani puts it. While women in the Middle East have made great strides in business, they still need to “shatter the glass ceiling”, says Al Kaylani, adding that there are a number of obstacles that women – regionally and internationally – need to overcome.

“The business community remains very male-dominated through long-established associations. To combat that, we need to see greater collaboration between the public and private sectors, to break these old moulds and move forward with a globalised economy, allowing women to enter and prove themselves,” she says. This means more women in decision-making positions that can “make a difference”, she adds.

Another barrier facing women is access to the funding needed to set up small and medium-size enterprises. Often women need to rely on their family, friends or their own resources. The banking system needs to “make sure it delivers to both the nascent businessmen and nascent businesswomen,” Al Kaylani notes.

Other challenges include barriers on the movement of goods and services, which can hinder business expansion, and balancing work and family life with the absence of sufficient maternity leave periods and flexible working hours. “We need to see the legislation that will really empower women, give them more flexible hours, allowing them to work from home, and we want to see longer maternity leaves by law not by favour,” she says. “We need government legislation to empower women to deliver to their homes, but also to have a bigger role to play within the community and wider nation.”

The AIWF forum holds events around the world

The gender gap when it comes to entrepreneurship is not a strictly regional phenomenon. In the US, only one in 13 women is looking at setting up a business over the next five years, compared with one in five men, according to a 2012 GEM US report. More women entrepreneurs were found to lack confidence and displayed a greater fear of failure compared with men. Despite those challenges, more women are expected to join the market-place than ever before.

The Third Billion is a term used to describe the number of women who will enter the mainstream economy for the first time within a decade. A Booz & Company report found that approximately 860 million women worldwide, representing 25 per cent, are not prepared or not enabled to join the economy due to a lack of sufficient education and family and community support. Within the next decade, women “are poised to take their place in the economic mainstream... as producers, consumers, employees, and entrepreneurs,” the report said.

For Reshma Saujani, founder of US-based Girls Who Code, the biggest challenges women entrepreneurs face are access to capital and embracing risk and failure. Girls Who Code is an initiative that aims to educate more than one million girls in computer science by 2020. Saujani believes that exposing girls from a young age to computer science will lead to more women working in the technology and engineering fields. Saujani started Girls Who Code in 2011 with an eight-week summer programme where girls learned how to build websites and spoke with entrepreneurs about their future plans. The organisation, which relies on volunteers such as educators, engineers and entrepreneurs, claims to have created a new model for teaching computer science, combining instructions in robotics, web design and mobile development with mentorship from the industry’s leading female entrepreneurs.

Haifa Al Kaylani, chairman of the AIWF and Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code

“In the US, there are many jobs open in computing related fields and there’s a decline in women going into those fields,” Saujani says. “When girls think of computer sciences, they don’t think it’s changing the world. Then there are cultural aspects, as we don’t encourage girls to pursue computing fields and they shy away from the risk.” For Saujani, there’s a long way to go to change their mindset but now is the time to do it, she says. “Technology is a hot and exciting field and we want girls to recognise this is something they want to do.”

Education is also playing an important role in women’s lives in the Middle East. In the Gulf Arab region, there’s a budding female entrepreneurial scene, says AIWF’s Al Kaylani. As women become more educated and empowered, they set up businesses and play a greater role in the economy. “Change is coming and it has been coming. When I started AIWF in 2001, we were talking about a window of opportunity opening up for Arab women. Now there are wide doors,” she says.