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Women Starting Up the Middle East

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
December 6, 2013

A woman films with her iPad in Bahrain, January 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed). A woman films with her iPad in Bahrain, January 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed).

Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Gender Gap Report, tracking the world’s progress toward eliminating gender inequality. This year’s report, published in October, included some good news: in the nearly 140 countries counted, more than 90 percent of the divide in health and education has been closed. Still, there remains a huge gender gap in economic participation, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where men are 60 percent more economically empowered than women.

In many MENA countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, there are higher tertiary education enrollment rates for women than for men. Overall, women in the MENA region are more likely to graduate from university than their male peers. Yet the female labor participation rate remains only half the global average, which hampers growth and leaves the region lagging behind the rest of the world. As Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund, noted in a recent visit to Kuwait:

For the entire Middle East and North Africa region, the gap between men and women’s participation in the labor force over the past decade was almost triple the average gap in the emerging market and developing economies. If this gap had simply been double instead of triple, the gains for the entire region, the Gulf countries included, would have been enormous—almost $1 trillion in output, amounting to annual gains of about 6 percent of GDP.

As my colleague Isobel Coleman highlights, many women in MENA countries are outperforming their male peers in science and math, as well as technology and engineering — an unusual fact given that women fall behind men in math, science, and engineering globally.

Earlier this fall, Algerian college student Meriem Chehih made it to the final round of the Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business Innovation Competition. Her invention: a mobile platform, called E-care, which allows users to track their blood pressure by taking measurements throughout the day and helps local doctors prevent premature deaths. At a recent Microsoft-sponsored competition for young technology entrepreneurs, two of the three all-female teams were from the MENA region. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is home to one of the biggest gatherings of all-female gamers in the world, GCON.

A number of social enterprise incubators and crowd funding organizations now prioritize empowering women entrepreneurs from the MENA region. For example, the Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Project, started in 2011, provides training, mentorship, and other skills-building programs to women. Social enterprise innovator Ashoka is also working to support women entrepreneurs in MENA countries and recently partnered with General Electric to launch Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in MENA, an initiative designed to spur innovations that enable the full economic participation of women. The three winning projects will each be rewarded $25,000 in unrestricted funding.

One of the 107 competitors is the Roudha Center, a Qatar-based NGO that describes itself as a “one stop shop for women entrepreneurs” and has already engaged more than 6,000 women in its events. The Center also offers a free six-month program to help Qatari women develop and gain the skills they need to grow their businesses in competitive markets. Another contestant is Nabbesh’s Work that Works for Women Initiative, also known as the “www Initiative,” which creates flexible work opportunities for Emirati women in virtual skills markets. The initiative works with private-sector companies to create thousands of employment opportunities that allow Emirati women to “earn an income and build an online reputation based on merit and not gender.”

Platforms and competitions like these provide women entrepreneurs a chance to showcase their creativity and potential and connect with other businesswomen. Thanks to women, entrepreneurship is becoming an increasingly important tool in fighting the high unemployment rates seen across the MENA region. According to a 2013 study by the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Development Programme, youth unemployment in the Arab region is the highest in the world at 23.2 percent.

Eliminating the gender gap would have a huge economic impact. A study on Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains From Gender Equity, estimates that if female participation rates in Egypt were equal to those of men, GDP would grow by 34 percent. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates – which continues to hold the top position among Arab countries in women’s economic participation and is the only MENA country to have fully closed the educational attainment gap – could grow its GDP by 12 percent. At a time when the world is riddled with economic hardship and inequality, all innovators should be allowed and encouraged to fully contribute to the global economy.

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