Women in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are making appreciable strides in social development. They now outnumber men attending universities in most Arab countries. Disparities in literacy and enrollment in primary and secondary education have fallen dramatically in the last few decades. The impact of these changes can be seen in the labor market as well. As a result of better educational opportunities and growing economies, employment for women has been rising at a faster rate than for men.
Moreover, the World Bank reports an overall growth in the number of businesses owned and managed by women in the region. But according to Maha ElShinnawy, professor of leadership in the School of Business at the American University in Cairo, much work still needs to be done to advance entrepreneurship among Arab women—an increasingly hot topic in policy circles. She cites one study showing that women were the principal owners of only twenty percent of companies surveyed in MENA, a percentage notably lower than that found in other middle-income regions, such as East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America. “Creating this entrepreneurial culture is important for women because of the way many women interact within the workforce,” ElShinnawy explained. “Women may enter and leave the workforce several times throughout the course of their lives. Having the ability to create, sustain, and grow businesses allows women to maintain this connection, but on their own terms.”
ElShinnawy runs the Middle East outpost of the 10,000 Women initiative, a global undertaking by the U.S. investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs to give women greater access to business and management education. The initiative is grounded in the premise that investing in women is one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality and facilitate inclusive economic growth. Research by Goldman Sachs, the World Bank, and others suggests that investing in business education for women can lead to more productive workers, healthier and better-educated families, and more prosperous communities. 10,000 Women operates in twenty countries (besides Egypt, they include Afghanistan, Brazil, China, India, Rwanda, and the United States) partnering with academic institutions and non-governmental organizations to create programs that are relevant to students’ cultural and business environments.
The continuing barriers to women’s entrepreneurship are numerous, ElShinnawy said. They start with ignorance among many women about the very concept of creating a business. Among the specific hurdles is a lack of access to capital, which itself might be due to being shut out of a traditional world dominated by influential men. “They don’t have access to networks of mentors from whom they can learn and take advice,” ElShinnawy said. Another barrier is corruption and lack of business ethics, which some believe negatively affects a gender that is seen as less comfortable operating in such a climate.
As director of the 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership program at AUC, ElShinnawy offers a practical, skills-based business education that she describes as “somewhere between a short-term executive training and an MBA.” Many of the students are women who already own businesses and want to learn how to expand them or improve their service delivery. Graduates of the program constitute a network of mentors for successive classes of students.
ElShinnawy, named as one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2011 by CEO Middle East magazine, sees the Egyptian revolution as an opportunity for women entrepreneurs. She hopes that a transition to democracy will prove a turning point for ethics in business—and for ethics in business education as well: “Ethical business goes hand in hand with entrepreneurship. A growing business is wholly dependent on its customers with whom they must develop a rapport. On a policy level towards creating a more entrepreneurial society overall in Egypt, creating accountability must be one of our first concerns.”