The economic and business roles of Arab women have been discussed for more than two decades and initiatives have been launched on the consensus that their participation is worth promoting. With electoral quotas in several Arab countries to promote their political participation and with more women appointed to significant positions in the private sector, there are indicators that the roles of women are being taken more seriously. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, while there is a great deal of focus on women driving and flying, much less has been published about those women who make up the majority of Saudis enrolled in medical and pharmacy schools, teaching and research programs, and a number of scientific concentrations.
But I believe that the emphasis across the region on building up women as entrepreneurs will only bear fruit if the term applies broadly to women who create and run small and medium-size enterprises as businesses as well as their sisters engaged in IT, programming, hi tech, and similar sectors where entrepreneurs tend to concentrate.
Recent enterprise program initiatives recognize that empowering rural communities, co-ops, neighborhood associations, and similar groups will enable them to act as proto-incubators for bringing greater business literacy to those who have been largely marginalized economic players. The cost of not including women as serious economic actors is severe and largely unnoticed. A Brookings Institution article recently noted that: “The World Bank recently said that globally we are losing $160 trillion in wealth because of the gender gap in earnings, including $3.1 trillion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.”
Yet changes in legal codes, allocating more funding to female-centric programs, and building friendly ecosystems to support women in business still has to overcome the most significant barrier to women in the workforce – social and cultural stereotypes driven by a patriarchal society. As the Brookings article puts it: “In order to address the cultural barriers and the deep-rooted gender stereotyping concerning the division of labor, we must work closely with communities and with men specifically to raise the desirability and legitimacy of women working.”
Perhaps the reason that there is so much emphasis on promoting women entrepreneurs in hi tech is that these sectors are outside of traditional jobs tied to crafts and food processing or more male-dominated areas. An IFC article says it clearly: “It may surprise some to learn that one in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by women- a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Indeed, women are a force to be reckoned with in 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, and is therefore a very attractive industry for women.”
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