Middle East: lack of women entrepreneurs

Middle East: lack of women entrepreneurs

“The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t.”

This quote is from Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) in her widespread well-read book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Below some paragraphs of Sheryl’s view on the lack of women entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

Status of women

Back in 2009, the World Survey on the Role of Women in Development report by ESCWA identified that the Arab woman is still incapable of being equal to men. These reports do note, that increasing women’s participation would have positive implications on social and economic development. Staggeringly, most women don’t even know their participation or legal rights, and therefore are unable to push for them. In 2009 Lebanese women made up only 26% of the workforce, a whopping increase of 1% since 2000.

The 2009 report also identified a 27% wage gap between male and female employees over the age of 30 in Lebanon and the continuing discrimination against unmarried women in terms of sick leave. The report also notes that domestic violence further impedes women’s progress.

Fast forward 4 years to today. What of the Arab revolutions? Rather than equalize the gender gap, in fact women are even worse off than before. Moha Ennaji writes in the Daily Star: “the Islamist governments now in power in several countries seem more determined than the despots that they replaced to keep women out of politics. In conducting interviews with women in the region, I am struck by their pessimism. They fear the loss of their rights. They see economic disintegration all around them, raising the possibility of a further increase in violence. As social bonds fray, they feel increasingly vulnerable. More than once, I heard them express the view that things were better before the revolutions.”


The typical counter argument to the Occidentalist viewpoint of the downtrodden and ever suffering Arab woman has been to rationalize that Arab women themselves are happy with the status quo, and that others shouldn’t impose their view of “democracy” onto them which isn’t suitable to the culture. I can’t think of any Arab woman that would be happy with forced virginity tests (Egypt) or exclusion from the legislations and decisions that will ultimately decide whether she can put food on the table or not for her family. Quoting from Moha Ennaji again, “Women make up half of the Middle East’s population, and any hope of political and economic development must account for that fact. Organizations like the United Nations Development Program have repeatedly issued reports demonstrating the connection between economic decline and oppression of women. Simply put, the Arab countries will not succeed unless women are fully integrated into political and economic life.”

A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that majorities in the Muslim world want the Islamic legal and moral code of sharia as the official law in their countries, albeit with no agreement on what it should include and who should be subject to it. 74% of respondents in Lebanon for example said that wives should always obey their husbands. With several countries not implementing laws criminalizing marital rape and domestic violence this indicator of sentiment is worrying. The reasons for not criminalizing domestic violence and rape are explained as threatening the family unit. Bafflingly, MP Ghassan Moukheiber (Lebanon), said it would be unconstitutional for the law to address only women. Lebanon’s religious courts are the ones who rule over marriage and personal issues. They criticized the proposed law as an attempt to erode their authority.

To criticize a law that would protect half of the population, and grant equal civil rights on the basis of an undermining of authority speaks volumes about the depth of patriarchy that permeates every sector of society. We must question if there is in fact a real desire to fully integrate women into political and economic life. If women are constantly being perceived as a threat to authority, integration will never happen.

Women in work

Michelle Chen wrote about Arab Women Unions noting that “women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation.

A February 2013 World Bank report on gender equality in the Arab world talks about the increased difficulties women face finding employment after university than men. In Egypt the unemployment rate for women with university degrees was 32 percent, almost triple that for educated males in 2011.

Part of the reason for this is less hiring by the public sector and a bias by the private sector against hiring women. Many firms believe women are less productive and less skilled than male employees. In Jordan 66% of the unemployed were women, in Syria 71%. Across the MENA region female labor participation rate only inched up at an average of 0.17% annually.

According to the report; many public sector job programs have been suspended or have reached capacity, the consequences of which are that educated men are generally able to find jobs in the private sector but women are obliged to move into very low productivity subsistence agriculture or otherwise leave the labor market completely.

“Cultural expectations are one of the reasons women are at a disadvantage when it comes to seeking alternative employment. Marriage often hurts Arab women’s chances at becoming employed. A 2010 survey of community college graduates in Jordan found that 92% wanted to work. A year later only 7% of married graduates were employed while 21% of single women were employed”

Double Bind Theory

There exists in the region a favoritism of boys over girls, which starts at birth. This can manifest in the amount of attention and love that is shown towards the female child and extend even to allocation of food and of course later on certain regulations which are extreme for the girl, and almost nonexistent for the boy.

Thus, right from the moment a girl appears in the world she has to battle and suffer. Education of girls tends to consist of a series of warnings and scare tactics about things that are harmful, shameful and forbidden according to religion. Some topics of course aren’t offered as suitable for girls to take.

Nawal el Saadawi writes in her book “The Hidden Faces of Eve: “The child is therefore trained to suppress her own desires, to empty herself of authentic original wants and wishes linked to her own self and to fill the vacuum that results with the desires of others. Education of female children is transformed into a slow process of annihilation, a gradual throttling of her personality and mind…”

And most importantly for the purposes of this argument: “A girl who has lost her personality, her capacity to think independently and to use her own mind, will do what others have told her and will become a toy in her hands and a victim of their decisions”

Parallel to deeply ingrained cultural motifs, there is a conflicting and overwhelming force of media and marketing; especially from global brands which target women in a very different way. A continuous stream of striving for beauty, making you more sexy, more desirable to men, more messages that urge you to consume, more brands that urge you to “express yourself” and to “ be independent” and “be bold”. How can the Arab woman process these things? Two conflicting messages are going to cause a problem. Something has to give. Either she rejects the new message, or she has to reject that which she is familiar with. What occurs is adoption of the new message at the expense of one’s internal reasoning, otherwise known as a Double Bind. Double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion—the use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to or resist.

Whilst local values and culture are supposed to honor and protect the women, we don’t see any advertising with women in positions of power, we don’t see media and content targeted towards women that is anything other than fashion and beauty and there is very little in the way of innovation in terms of creative advertising. In a culture which imports everything, the problem is exacerbated as the result is a cultural narrative that says one thing and a media narrative which promotes the opposite. This contradiction as far as women are concerned is damaging to everyone; added to that the fact that the media is controlled and heavily populated by men – what you end up with is an extremely powerful cocktail of control which aims to dictate what women should think and aspire to whilst simultaneously making them spend as much as possible.


One of the biggest obstacles faced by the new generation entering the workforce is that the education system has failed to prepare them for the current demands of employment in terms of hard and soft skills. Many students are graduating in courses that aren’t in growth industries. More importantly employers are looking for “creative problem solvers, innovators, people who can use their own intuition, work by themselves, and in teams”. They are also looking for people with intercultural skills, a sense of responsibility and accountability and a proactive attitude. Finally a sense of confidence is key. These are all skills which women have extremely little experience with, and traits which aren’t nurtured in women during school or university.

Female employees on the other hand bemoan the lack of career development options clearly laid out in job descriptions and the huge absence of role models.

Many organisations such as the nonprofit Education for Employment, partner with young graduates to train them for private sector employment increasing their skills. Across the region, the organization has trained around 3,000 young people, mostly women, since 2006. Similarly The Association for Women’s Total Advancement and Development, paid for by private companies in Egypt, is a non-profit organization fostering mentorship networks, entrepreneurship and skills training. Around 1,500 women have graduated from the organization’s training programs since they began in late 2008. Arcata is another likeminded organization in Qatar. Most of the programs are funded and / or run by USAID branches, and some private sector companies like Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs run their own graduate training programs focused on women. Some universities even offer “ entrepreneurship” courses in addition to the curricula students are taking.

The question is, is it too late at graduate level to instill a sense of entrepreneurialism zeal into women?
If the current pop marketing is anything to go by, not necessarily; as authors such as Guy Kawasaki (Rules for Revolutionaries), Malcom Gladwell (Blink) and Seth Godin (Purple Cow) impress “ new innovative” thinking for the older business crowd in order to drastically transform their business from good to great. Incubators, meet-ups and other loose associations catering to the regional entrepreneurial crowd frequently cite methods from these and other books, and point to strategies taken by companies based in Silicon Valley as the golden standard by which to measure ones success, but this gives a terribly false sense of reality. Education in the US and other European countries focuses on gender equality. Curriculum is based around the need to think independently and question current thinking. Students are already bathed in an environment of innovation and opportunity, the leap to Purple Cow status is not that hard.


It would be hard not to conclude that there exists a deliberate and conscious effort to exclude women from opportunities that would increase social and economic equality for communities in the region. This may seem counter intuitive, given that the main catalyst for the revolutions was social and economic injustice caused in large part by neo liberal policies. The reasoning for women to be independent and be entrepreneurial can then be contextualized as a clear threat to the aims of the prevailing political parties that seek to impose harsher restrictions and potentially implement Sharia law across the land.

Like most shifts in power, there is often no real viable stable alternative to fill a power gap at the time the opportunity presents itself, and the actors who can be proactive and are aggressive enough to step up are not necessarily the most able or most prepared. We will not see a cohesive female community come together and push for change, simply because they have been used to not having any sort of power for so long, they wouldn’t be able to self-organize effectively. As the President of EFE says, “most women don’t even know how to go looking for jobs”

There is one possible alternative that will solve this problem. That solution lies in looking at things which can be changed in the short to medium term such as the locus of work. Women need no longer be forced to come to the office to execute tasks if they have the equipment and means to do it at home. Women in offline communities in the same geographic location tend to have more in common thanks to their social similarities than they would do with peers in the office. Such networks can lead to better work, including a stronger sense of confidence. Work can be granularized and distributed across their networks, whose bonds are often much stronger because of a shared sense of responsibility to each other (horizontally) rather than to a CEO (vertically). We know that uptake of social networks in the region is at a much higher rate than elsewhere in the developed world. Brands that wish to market to women know where they are and can reach them. If women don’t know how to find jobs, then employers should take a leaf out of marketeers books and make the jobs find them, wherever they are.

Up skilling through mobile games and social tasks will also be a future trend and one that can extend the reach of education far beyond traditional classroom teacher vs student models. Challenges that require lateral thinking, problem solving and working in teams delivered through the digital medium will better prepare women for career independence. Public support for the freelance model is key, perhaps even subsidizing women to follow this career path is an option.

A woman’s most precious asset is her time, and if it is not well spent, that’s talent we are all missing out on.

Customer Reviews


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

    Thanks for submitting your comment!