Or will age-old stereotypes relegate them to secondary roles?
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 on 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 counterparts 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 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 in, “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 those 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.”
Digital platforms that are the backbone of many high-tech projects are one option for enabling women to spend time both at home and on the job. For example, “these digital platforms allow women to be unimpeded by cultural constraints or safety issues and lowers the implicit and explicit transaction costs of transportation, child care, discrimination, and social censure,” according to the IFC article.
So the future for highly educated women in the Arab world is not as regressive as for those with less education and access. In fact, “According to UNESCO, 34–57% of STEM grads in Arab countries are women, which is much higher share than universities in the US or Europe.”
Yet other statistics are not as supportive of a bright future for women. According to the IFC article, “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, including prohibitions against women opening up a bank account or owning property, limited freedom of movement without a male guardian, or constraints on interactions with men who are not in their family, in addition to cultural and attitudinal stigmas.”
So it makes sense that the emphasis should be three-fold: opportunities for women at the community level through initiatives in traditional areas of crafts, niche foods, and specialty items (think argan oil and Zaatar); building ecosystems at the high end for university graduates who are well-versed in the digital economy and may apply those skills to upgrading those women at the community level (e.g. https://www.asilashop.com/, or http://deden.co.uk/heritage-natural-soap-by-tradition/), and those in-between who are eager to be active in their local economies and will excel if given training, resources, mentoring, and encouragement.