Unspoken bias: Egyptian female entrepreneurs speak out

Photo by AFP

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the startup ecosystem in Egypt has evolved dramatically over the last decade, especially on the diversity and inclusion front. From coaching to funding, women have been reaping the benefits of gender-specific and empowering policies geared towards them, by both governmental institutions and the business community at large.

However, women remain a long way off from standing on the same foot with men, particularly in the entrepreneurial arena. Recently, the AUC School of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) joined forces with the Women and Memory Forum to hold a discussion among the School’s network of female entrepreneurs and the Forum. The Women and Memory Forum is a pioneering initiative that aims to enrich public knowledge by creating the most comprehensive archive on women and gender studies in Egypt.

The discussion included women working in various fields, including e-commerce, Femtech, consulting, and more, with each showcasing different points of view on several topics relating to their careers.

The limits of technical support

“The ecosystem is now different. It changed a lot in the past 15 years,” said CEI’s Director Hala Barakat to prompt the discussion highlighting the increased accessibility to training, coaching and funding programs for startups in general, and female entrepreneurs in particular.

“The support that women entrepreneurs need to be able to start their businesses is there,” argued Farah Ahmed, founder of The Baby Garage, an online marketplace to trade pre-owned and brand news kids’ goods. “But the support for scaling and growing is not as present; it is all very early stage.” She explained that, especially in fundraising, it is very evident that investors seem to prefer male entrepreneurs. “They only dedicate a small percentage of their portfolio to female founders,” underlined Farah.

“I think the lack of mentorship for women entrepreneurs is another key issue with these programs,” added Reem Makeen, founder at The Kind Market, an e-commerce platform selling environmentally-friendly alternatives to everyday products. “When the programs end, the support ends. Women then are unable to find anyone to reach out to for advice and end up feeling alone.”

Senior Entrepreneurship Advisor at USAID Projects Christine Sedky, also noted that most programs target young female entrepreneurs. “Women in their 40s or older are a demographic that is not considered at all,” she revealed.

Money matters

In addition to technical support, female entrepreneurs have a hard time securing financial support for their businesses.

“It is harder for a woman to find someone who agrees to put their money in her early-stage startup,” explained Barakat. “Even convincing family and friends to invest is not easy as they see it as a higher risk to their money.”

“The more women investors we have, the more investments there will be in women-led businesses. Women investors understand women founders more,” said Sedky highlighting that the investment and finance industry is currently made up of ‘mostly men’. She also pinpointed how in funding pitches, investors usually ask male founders encouraging questions, while their female counterparts are being questioned about the validity of their idea in the first place.

“We are never asked why we are doing what we do, which is a very obvious question,” echoed Samar Assem, co-founder at The Growth Formula, a ‘learning for development’ initiative aiming to support youth in acquiring the needed skills for the job market and to offer entrepreneurs world class learning experiences for an affordable price.

Assem further explained the double standards by which female entrepreneurs are judged by investors. “There is an assumption that we might not have enough time for our startups because we are married and have kids, and hence, that we will drop the project at any time,” she said.

“Meanwhile, a man with kids is perceived as more stable for an investment. So, having a family is an asset for men, but a burden on women,” she elaborated. “Entrepreneur or not, we are never actually asked whether our partners are supportive of our careers – the assumptions, and discriminations, are automatically made.”

These assumptions perpetuate an already unequal financial status for women.

“Women are less financially stable than men,” mentioned Dalia Ebeid, assistant professor at the Department of English at Cairo University and researcher at the Women and Memory Forum.

“During the pandemic, single moms did not have any financial support and many lost their jobs,” agreed Makeen. “Many women in lower income classes lost their jobs during COVID-19, too, because their jobs cannot be done from home,” added Samar Assem. This is especially damaging because, as Assem highlighted, ‘these women are usually the breadwinners in their households, even if their husbands work.’

Family, traditions and prejudices

There is still a strong sector segmentation when it comes to entrepreneurship opportunities for women in Egypt.

“Funding and training is usually geared towards specific sectors that are traditionally ‘feminine’ like handicrafts, as opposed to fields like Fintech and Agritech for instance,” explained Hala Barakat.

This segmentation is pronounced not only in entrepreneurship, but in the general workplace as well.

“There is a gap between the number of women and men employed in different industries and within each sector of each industry,” elaborated Hala Kamal, professor of English and Gender Studies at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University and co-founder of the Women and Memory Forum.

“For instance, there are more women working in the media industry, but more men in finance. But within the media industry, most graphic designers are women, while most developers and animators are men,” she continued. This is due to the fact that some jobs are socially and culturally viewed as more suitable for men and less so for women.

Hend Gomaa, founder and managing director at Digify MENA, a full-featured digital media consultancy house operating in Cairo and Jeddah, also noted that employers are always hesitant to hire women fearing that they will prioritize their families or that they might potentially take long maternity leaves. “Even if the female candidate is a higher caliber, employers are willing to give up quality (women) for continuity (men) – they don’t want to take the risk,” she underlined.

When we venture outside Cairo, this issue becomes even more complex.

“Female entrepreneurs are held down by traditions, especially in rural areas. These women are very smart, but they don’t have the opportunity. A woman cannot simply leave the house or go to the city to carry out her project,” explained Samar Assem. To tackle this issue, many women resort to digitizing their talents, so they are able to work from home.

“Conservative mindsets are present among all social standards. Supporting women is not the norm in Egypt, especially in lower classes. When you add to that early marriage and FGM, you will find that discrimination is multi-layered. Women cannot get their rights that easily,” said Noha Abdel Hamid, regional initiative manager of CTEK Women in the MENA and founding member of Women Entrepreneurship Network. “We need to normalize that women have the right to achieve.”

“We also need to educate mothers on how to raise their children equally without perpetuating gender stereotypes in order to change the mindset of the next generations,” suggested Assem. “Stop giving more responsibilities to women at home.”

“Caring roles are an extra burden/challenge that we face in our daily lives as women that affect our careers. My role as a caregiver, for instance, delayed my career for two years,” agreed Kamal, underlining that female professionals must have done more than their male colleagues to get where they are.

“The home is an important factor in strengthening women and empowering them to go out for their dreams/businesses,” said Abdel Hamid. “The way women are raised reflects on their personality when they grow up,” she added, referring to how, in many households, marriage is the main (and sometimes only) aspiration women are taught to have.

Safe spaces and the road ahead

Since entrepreneurship remains a space dominated by men, is creating a “safe space” through exclusive networks and programs catered to female entrepreneurs a potential solution?

Interestingly, most entrepreneurs did not think so. To them, being in an enclosed space only perpetuates further divides. “I don’t want to work in networks for women only,” said Samar Assem.

“I am part of a network with the UN to help women entrepreneurs, and this is very important, of course, but it does not have to be women only, it needs to include feminist men as well,” agreed Noha Abdel Hamid. “Yes, opportunities are less for women, but a quota and women-only programs is not the answer,” she stressed.

As for the future, they all agreed that education is the way to go.

“Women (more than men) do not make good use of their time to learn new skills and develop themselves through courses, diplomas, and graduate studies. Women need to manage and invest in their time to get better opportunities,” claimed Assem. For her, the question to tackle next is: “How can organizations facilitate this learning?”

“Yes, there are more opportunities now, but today’s market is more challenging. It is much more difficult now to find a job, especially with the many obsolete or outdated college degrees that young Egyptians are earning nowadays,” added Abdel Hamid, emphasizing the importance of developing new skills. “Now, it is increasingly important to learn how to code. I believe that it is as essential as reading and writing, and it will help women catch up to the market.”

Finally, making remote work more accessible to women was seen as key to more women leading successful and stable careers.

“I think women should be allowed to work from home during as well as after maternity leave, instead of having to drop work completely,” said Assem. “This has proven to be feasible during the lockdown, so why not create new policies and regulations to institutionalize this?”

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