A recent study conducted by the Young Presidents’ Organization "YPO" revealed that while economic participation of women in the Middle East and African countries are below the global average, high profile women business leaders are working to change this trend in the region.
the Middle East and North Africa region closing its overall gender gap by 60 percent in 2014, marking the largest absolute improvement globally with 93 percent of the educational gender gap closed. Yet the region continues to rank last on the economic participation and opportunity subindex, with only 42 percent of the economic gender gap closed.
Author and academic Shereen El-Feki, Ph.D., is struck by the seeming contradiction between high rates of female education in many parts of the Arab region and, at the same time, some of the lowest rates of female labor participation in the world. “The bottom line is that the Arab world has a parodox in employment. One reason is that women, in general, prefer public sector jobs, which are seen as more suitable for women. But most of the growth is coming from the private sector. That can be a difficult place for them — in part because of prevailing notions of what constitutes ‘appropriate woman’s work’.”
Women entrepreneurs breaking barriers
One solution, according to El Feki, is entrepreneurship. Despite the challenges of starting a business in the Arab world — including difficulty in getting startup capital, a risk averse culture and limited venture capital funding — some women have overcome the structural and cultural constraints.
In Lebanon, where entrepreneurship among women is among the highest in the region, YPO member Christine Sfeir, recognized as part of the 2014 class of the Forum of Young Economic Global Leaders, started her own business at age 22. Sfeir brought a Dunkin Donuts franchise to Lebanon and has since added 30 locations in six markets. After the 2006 war in Lebanon, Sfeir realized the need to expand outside the region and identified an opportunity in the United States for a Lebanese food chain. She launched Sum Sum first in Arab countries, and in 2013 opened a location in New York.
“Because I was young, I had to work harder as a managing director at 22,” she says. “But being a woman in the Arab world can be turned into a positive. I think sometimes the biggest limitation for women is themselves.” Sfeir is focused on hiring women for her team, “because they perform well,” and she now mentors women offering a new role model for young Lebanese entrepreneurs.
According to El-Feki, while women like Sfeir are stepping up as chief executives in conventional business, opportunities through information technology and in social enterprise sectors are opening doors for more women in the region.
Arab media personality and YPO member Muna Abu Sulayman has extensive experience in both information technology and social enterprise since 2002 as a founding co-host of the popular Arab TV program “Kalam Nawaem.” She was the first Saudi woman to appear on pan-Arab satellite television and has since become a regional television celebrity and social media maverick with close to 1 million followers on Twitter and Facebook. In 2004, Abu Sulayman, like her YPO peer Sfeir, became part of the Forum of Young Economic Global Leaders, and in 2006, she became the first woman from Saudi Arabia appointed as Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Abu Sulayman says recent trends are driving women to participate more actively in the business world in Saudi Arabia. “Because of a lack of gender segmentation in the education system and the wide access of women to higher education, we have a lot of women going into sciences and technology compared to rest of the world. Meanwhile, the Internet has opened up avenues to start businesses outside the country, allowing them to set up virtual offices and sell online. As a result, we are seeing many small businesses now being led by Saudi women,” says Abu Sulayman.
While recognizing that barriers still exist for entrepreneurs and women in particular, she believes that IT has lowered the cost of access to entrepreneurship and cites her career as an example. “Most people know me from my work in social media. But I started two IT companies and actively lead corporate social responsibility initiatives, a number of which are focused on promoting entrepreneurship among women. IT has facilitated the ability of women like me to find employment in a non-women friendly work environment in Saudi Arabia.”
Creating opportunity in Palestine
YPO member Lana Abu-Hijleh comes from a family in Nablus, Palestine. At 17, she recognized the importance of education and with the support of her parents she continued studies in the United States where she become a civil engineer. “I insisted that I come back to Palestine where few women were working, specifically in this sector,” she says. She joined the United Nations Development Programme, working her way up from a site engineer in a male-dominated field to a senior leadership position in UNDP Palestine. After spending 17 years with the organization, she joined an international non-government organization, now named Global Community, and turned it from a small NGO into the largest in Gaza and the West Bank.
Abu-Hijleh also is active in the private sector. In 2010, she became the first woman board member for a major private fund and for the largest national bank in Palestine. She used her positions and connections to launch new initiatives that provide opportunities to advance women entrepreneurship. “In the past 30 years, my focus has been to ensure the advancement of women is not on one unilateral track. Women in business need the support from civil society, the private sector and government,” says Abu-Hijleh.
From the start of her career, she volunteered in civil society and community building, focusing on women and youth issues. In spite of the war and destruction around her, Abu-Hijleh has continues to support various culture and arts initiatives as well as archeological preservation projects, serving on the boards of the Palestine Student Lending Fund, El Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe and Palestinian Business Women Forum. “This has not only kept me grounded, but confirms my belief that personal advancement comes with community advancement, especially in Palestine,” she says.
Expanding the leadership network in Jordan
For Jordan’s Information and Communication Minister Majd Shweikeh, also a YPO member, her family’s emphasis on education helped her resist the prevalent social pressure to marry young. In a country where only 14 percent of women are economically active, Shweikeh was an exception, starting her career as an auditor at Arthur Andersen immediately following university
After getting married to a colleague one year later, she continued to work in various international organizations while pursuing higher education certifications. Shweikeh accepted her first executive role when Global Systems for Mobile Communications (GSM) operator Orange Mobile offered her a position as chief financial officer, and she discovered a new passion for the telecom industry. By 2006, Shweikeh was appointed CEO of Orange Mobile, the first women chief executive officer for an international GSM operator.
“I sensed a big responsibility to be chosen by an international group to run a subsidiary in Jordan. Since then, my aim has been to empower women, encouraging networking and knowledge transfer.” As a new CEO, Shweikeh also joined several boards. “I realized that women naturally have what it takes to make a difference at a board level, contributing to high ethical standards and corporate responsibility.” She became more active in promoting opportunities for mentoring, shadowing and sponsorship programs for women, in an effort to build their leadership skills and grow the female leadership pipeline.
Since her appointment as minister in March 2015, Shweikeh has been focusing on expanding the reach of information and communication technology sector in Jordan. “We are committed to bringing digital justice, ensuring every person has access to the Internet. This indirectly empowers women. IT can be a major enabler for women, and I believe women entrepreneurs are the way forward,” adds Shweikeh.While the vast majority of Arab women still face societal and business challenges, YPO members are pushing forward, creating pathways and inspiring others to follow their lead.