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Embracing Gender Diversity In Entrepreneurship Across The Middle East Arab countries have begun to recognize that gender parity is both an economic and strategic imperative.

By Dalal Buhejji

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When the Bahraini startup Docwhere was named the global popular winner in the prestigious international Pitch@Palace entrepreneurial contest in December 2019, it didn't just highlight how technology is helping find solutions for social issues in the Middle East and elsewhere. It was also a victory for women entrepreneurs in a region commonly, often erroneously, associated with gender inequalities and other stereotypes.

But one in three tech startups in the Arab world are led by women, significantly higher than in Silicon Valley, where female businesses only comprise 17% of the total. Bahrain, in fact, is a global leader on this front, having achieved gender parity in business ownership, with 49% of all commercial registrations in the Kingdom being female-owned, official statistics show.

Many of these are social enterprises aimed at ameliorating larger issues that the region needs to overcome on the path to development. Dr. Nahla Al Sunni's Docwhere, for example, bridges the health access gap by connecting patients with user-reviewed medical services via a website where they can book appointments, order medication, have live consultations and share their medical reports.

Economic benefits of gender parity

Simply bringing each GCC nation to the best regional standard for women's workforce participation would add US$180 billion, or 7%, to the economy by 2025, according to McKinsey estimates. Full parity, such as that achieved by Bahrain, would add 32%, or an infusion of $830 billion into the economy.

Yet, the ILO estimates that the unemployment rate among Arab women is more than twice that of men, registering 15.6% in 2018 compared to a male rate of 5.8%. Labor force participation among women stands at 18.4% relative to 77.2% among Arab men. This despite 91.5% of young women in the Middle East being highly educated, according to a report by Global Female Leaders, with between 34-57% of female students majoring in engineering, science or agriculture.

It appears that empowerment remains the key issue holding women back.

Equitable representation as a strategic imperative

As worldwide awareness of equitable representation of men and women grows, Arab countries have begun to recognize that gender parity is both an economic and strategic imperative. The region's governments have taken several steps on this front, both to improve the participation of women in the workforce but also to boost female entrepreneurship.

In 2012, the UAE made it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors. In 2017, the country pledged $50 million to the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative fund, and by 2018, had closed 64% of the overall gender gap in the UAE workforce.

In Bahrain, women's needs have been integrated into national strategies in order to realize the country's Economic Vision 2030 and, following consultations with the IMF on gender budgeting, into the national budget. Public-private partnerships, such as the $100 million Bahraini Women Development Portfolio Fund, are enabling aspiring entrepreneurs by offering them financial support, training and advice to help launch their own commercial startups. The country's initiatives have been recognized- in 2019 Bahrain was named one of the top 10 startup ecosystems with the largest share of female founders, according to the 2019 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

Saudi Arabia, too, has rolled out several reforms since acceding to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2000, and as an early step, female employment in the private sector has increased by 130% since 2013.

Recognizing women entrepreneurs' strengths

As governments are actively working to improve workforce diversity, investors are beginning to recognize women's leadership strengths. Although only 14% of MENA startup investments go to women-led enterprises, according to a survey by event organiser Arabnet and Dubai SME, regional women are more confident about raising capital for their businesses than their global peers.

As much as 67% of female business owners surveyed in the UAE and Saudi Arabia feel confident when raising funds, ahead of the global average of 60%, a November 2019 report from HSBC Private Banking shows.

Certainly, more remains to be done in terms of creating new opportunities, but investors and government entities are well on the road to gender parity in entrepreneurship across the region. Perhaps now that startups led by Arab women are being recognized internationally, the movement will receive greater support across the economic and social spectrum.

Related: A Progressive Perspective: Areije Al Shakar, Fund Manager, Al Waha Fund of Funds

Dalal Buhejji

Senior Manager, Financial Services at the Bahrain Economic Development Board

Dalal Buhejji is Senior Manager, Financial Services at the Bahrain Economic Development Board and Chair of Women in Fintech Bahrain.
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