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An Open Call To Innovators: The Middle East Needs More Women Entrepreneurs There are many good reasons for tackling female workforce participation as a matter of priority in the MENA. The potential economic benefit of increased women's employment is striking.

By Lama Ataya

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Although the majority of working-age women in the MENA region are educated, the majority of them remain outside the labor force. Far from being a matter of unpreparedness for the job market, the unemployment rate among working-age women in the MENA, now standing at over 40% in some countries, is a multifaceted problem that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later, if we want to achieve the desired economic outcomes of having more women in the workplace.

There are many good reasons for tackling female workforce participation as a matter of priority in the MENA. The potential economic benefit of increased women's employment is striking. According to recent estimates, if women's participation in labor markets in the MENA region equaled that of men's, the regional GDP could rise by 47% over the next decade, and the region could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually ($2.7 trillion by 2025) as mentioned in the McKinsey Global Institute's Power of Parity report published in September 2015.

Source: Bayt.com

Solving the female unemployment problem

While the Bayt.com Status of Working Women in the MENA Survey, December 2014, shows that the top challenge faced by women in the MENA today is finding a job (60%), findings from First Jobs for Young Women in the MENA: Expectations and Reality, a white paper created by Bayt.com, Education For Employment (EFE), and YouGov, suggest that there are tangible steps that governments, employers and women themselves can undertake to increase women's participation in the workforce. These measures include encouraging entrepreneurship and enhancing the role of SMEs in attracting and retaining female talent.

Here are some of the recommendations suggested by the white paper to better facilitate the economic participation of women in the MENA region.

Related: Get Your Facts Straight: Women In The MENA Workplace

1. Enhancing the role of SMEs

Although SMEs are expected to comprise a significant portion of MENA's job growth, only 7% of young women looking for a job indicated that they would most like to work in a small or medium company, as compared to 35% who said they would rather work for multinationals, and 26% for the government or public sector.

These preferences appear to be misaligned with the proportions of young women who are actually employed by each organization type: 23% of employed women work in SMEs, versus 22% in multinationals and 17& in government. To link more women to careers in SMEs, SMEs can focus resources on adopting high-priority policies such as flexible schedules or childcare, and on leveraging the networks of current employees for recruitment – all benefits highly desirable by women, according to the First Jobs for Young Women in the MENA: Expectations and Reality white paper.

2. Encouraging entrepreneurship

According to the Status of Working Women in the MENA survey, about one-fifth (21%) of working women in the MENA region are the sole earning member in their household, and over half of them (55%) stated that having a successful career is what make them feel happy in their life. The bottom line of entrepreneurship is that it creates wealth: wealth for the entrepreneur, wealth for the people who are employed as a result, and wealth for the local economy.

In the Middle East specifically, the 2015 Entrepreneurship in the Middle East survey shows that more and more people -including women- want to be entrepreneurs and are looking at entrepreneurship options in their countries. Given a choice, 64% of respondents across the MENA region would prefer to have their own business, and 97% know at least one successful entrepreneur in their country of residence.

There is a very significant case to be made for creating sustainable economic growth by encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship among women in the MENA. The Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector and Arab Springs survey conducted right after the Arab Spring by Bayt.com in partnership with the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, shows that the Arab Spring had a positive effect on driving higher interest in both economic and social development.

To encourage entrepreneurship, governments need to reform the regulatory framework and lower the barriers for new company incorporation and continuing operations. For young women in particular, creating entrepreneurship programs, providing proper funding, and stimulating interest among young women in entrepreneurial opportunities could go a long way.

Source: Bayt.com

How can you be a successful female entrepreneur in 2016?

Women have long been perceived as the homemaker, the childminder, the wife- and have been expected to place their careers on the back burner. Thankfully, these outworn modes of thinking are slowly falling by the wayside. More and more, women are achieving their professional goals, and making vital contributions to the successes of individual businesses and the overall economy. Here are a few tips for overcoming the challenges facing aspiring female entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

1. Set your goals

Start a business that works for you and fits with your personal life. There are no rules as to what a "real" business looks like. For some businesspeople, success might mean an international operation with hundreds of employees and annual revenues in the tens of millions.

For others, a small consulting firm or artisan business that pays a healthy salary and allows generous personal freedom might be considered the pinnacle of success. The key is to take the time early in the planning process to consider this question and decide for yourself what your ideal vision is for your business and your personal life.

2. Network

Networking involves actively cultivating relationships with people, businesses, community leaders, and others who present possible opportunities for your business. Networking is not the same thing as sales: rather than the simple goal of making a sale, a huge goal of networking is to inform other businesspeople and influential people about what you do in hopes that they will recommend your business to their circle of contacts.

You are "networking" every time you attend an event held by a local trade association, get to know other business owners and community leaders, write a letter to the editor, participate in an online discussion group, or have lunch with another business owner.

3. Get the right funding for you

If you need startup or expansion financing, consider sources other than traditional banks. One of the concerns most commonly cited by women entrepreneurs is difficulty finding startup financing. And it is little wonder: traditional banks typically don't lend money to new ventures that don't have a track record of success or creditworthiness.

Instead of focusing on conventional banks, you should instead look for angel investors, private sector business incubators, and other institutions that have a vested interest in local startups.

Related: The Buzz About Beehive: Peer-To-Peer Lending Makes A GCC Entrance

Source: Shutterstock

4. Join professional groups

Whatever business you are in, you will find a small group, association or seasoned mentor to provide a sounding board and guide you along the way. Seek successful, likeminded people who can provide a supportive environment whether it is a local art group, professional networking platform like Bayt.com Specialties, writer's guild, book club, entrepreneurs association, professional association, professional women's association, etc. The sooner you start forging constructive alliances, the greater the potential benefits and synergies that can be enjoyed.

5. Find a work-life balance

Even today, the reality is that women still need to balance their work and domestic responsibilities to a far higher degree than men. This requires that the ability to manage time and set priorities be even more developed.

First, be proactive at work and at home- plan appointments well in advance, maintain a long-term budget plan and schedule of work that needs to get done, and make sure the two don't clash. You should, however, be aware that unforeseen circumstances may arise, so allow for flexibility in your schedules.

6. Dress the part

People's first impression, needless to say, will often carry a lot of weight in determining their perception of you. According to the Influence of Personal Appearance on Hiring Decisions poll, March 2013, 83.4% of respondents believe that there is a link between appearance and success.

Dressing professionally will help to mark you as a professional and serious business owner. It is not enough to be good at what you do, to be passionate and dynamic in your work, to be a font of innovation and vision; in order to achieve professional success, you must be seen to possess all of these attributes, and more. Perception matters in the professional world.

7. Keep the faith

Entrepreneurship is no easy feat. Keep in mind that many women have faced similar obstacles and made it to the top. Take pleasure in the work you do. Have belief in your own abilities. Keep on improving, keep on learning. And don't expect rewards to fall into your lap- ask for them, and ask for them again.

Related: Three Ways To Tackle The Glass Ceiling In The MENA Region

Lama Ataya

Chief Marketing Officer, Bayt.com

Lama Ataya heads the Marketing department at Bayt.com and within that role is also responsible for communications, content, community experience, and corporate social responsibility.

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