On March 20, the Middle East Program launched Women Entrepreneurship in MENA: The Cases of Bahrain, Lebanon and Tunisia. The report aggregates datasets from various national, regional, and global sources to better explain why women entrepreneurship in the MENA region continues to lag behind, despite striking progress in education, particularly tertiary education. The report builds on findings from MEP’s Middle East Women’s Initiative’s first flagship report, Ready to Lead: Understanding Women’s Leadership in MENA’s Public Sector.
The publication came together with generous support of the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain. At the launch, His Excellency Abdullah Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Ambassador to the US, noted, “[The report] will, without a doubt, assists us in advancing our work to further advance our society for the welfare of all women in Bahrain and the wider region by setting the benchmark, hopefully, for excellence.” Ms. Katrina Fotovat, Senior Official at the Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, emphasized “Gender parity in entrepreneurship could add up to $6 trillion in net value to the global economy in one year, particularly as our societies and economies are becoming increasingly reliant on digital technologies.”
Critical barriers to women’s entrepreneurship
Lead researcher and author Lynn Mounzer emphasized a key enabler to entrepreneurship is education. However, while women graduate at similar – if not higher – rates than men at the secondary and university levels in the three countries the report delves into (Bahrain, Tunisia, and Lebanon), this does not translate to greater workforce participation. “This can be attributed to outdated curricula, sociocultural factors, and a lack of focus on entrepreneurship and…[on] developing entrepreneurial skills for women in the region,” Mounzer noted. Another critical factor is the implementation of legal protections for women in the private sector. While the three countries studied have made progress in criminalizing workplace harassment, “Prevention methods and implementation remain inadequate,” as legal mechanisms are not clearly defined. Lastly, “In Lebanon and Tunisia, the inadequate public transportation systems still hinder women’s full economic participation,” because they cannot move outside their communities and take part in markets or in networking opportunities.
MaryClare Roche, technology director at the Arab Barometer, posited findings from the latest wave of Arab Barometer survey. “We did find that lack of childcare was the number one concern of women and men. Men did recognize that childcare is important, but I don’t think [they] realize how important it is to women.” The ‘double burden’ of providing household care and operating a business can be a major inhibitor to women.
Access to funding
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, only 1 percent of the $3 billion venture capital (VC) funding towards business went to women. Women interviewees cited in the report argue the lack of gender diversity in VC organizations is a major contributor to this reality. And, discriminatory inheritance laws in MENA lead to women having less land or capital to put up as collateral when trying to take out a loan, making it harder to gain the financial resources necessary to start a business. Although, important progress is being made across the three case study countries (something missing here.
Faisal Hammad, Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Committee at the Ministry of National Economy, explained the importance of equal opportunity committees established in all public ministries dedicated to ensuring gender equality in the Bahraini workforce. “We have a lot of case studies where we monitored medium and big businesses, even small businesses, where the manager or owner was a woman. We can see the differences in productivity.” He added, “Once we add and let more women enter [leadership positions] we can see a huge jump in the productivity as well as the profitability of any business.”
Lama Moussawi, Director of CIBL at the American University of Beirut, underscored this finding. CIBL also found company-led initiatives to improve women’s status in business are, “beneficial for both employers and investors. For investors, we know that organization diversity… leads to better bottom-line performance, and for employers, such an initiative attracts investments.”
Best practices to increase women’s entrepreneurship
Several key recommendations from the Women Entrepreneurship in MENA findings include, 1) Increase financial inclusion, 2) Encourage NGOs and governments to collaborate on capacity-building for women focused on entrepreneurial skills, 3) Enhance legal reforms with concrete enforcement mechanisms, and 4) Develop clear metrics to measure progress in supporting women.
Gender in Business Specialist
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more
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