In defense of female entrepreneurship in Egypt

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Female power may be best summed up in one of Aesop’s fables*, which suggests that “Persuasion is better than force, and a kind and a gentle manner will get quicker results than threats”. However, the great potential of the fairer sex continues to be underrepresented in the Egyptian workforce, whether as employees in corporates, or as entrepreneurs.

In 2021, the World Bank conducted a study in Egypt and reported that “if the female labor participation rate matched that of males, GDP would increase by 34 percent.” Despite this optimistic goal – and its importance in attaining Egypt’s 2030 vision – women in Egypt are still poorly represented in all tiers of corporate structure, with the greatest gap being at senior levels of management. Not only are women paid 34 percent less per hour than men, but they also represent a mere 18 percent of the workforce in the private sector, 9.7 percent in boards of companies and 7.1 percent in managerial positions.

These numbers stand in stark contrast to the great leaps women have made in the past century in Egypt, which are best reflected in the fact that, according to CAPMAS, women made up 47.2 percent (nearly half) of the science faculty student body in 2018-2019. This figure is not only high in local standards, but in global ones as well. In the UK, women who graduated from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in 2017 were only 35 percent.

The position of women in business has also been improving in other areas, including non-banking financial sector (NBFS) where companies reached a whopping 18.6 percent of women on their boards of directors in 2021, a 26.5 percent increase from the number in 2020, which was only 14.7 percent.

UNESCO broke down these numbers and the range of female intellect and skill was made clear: 49.4 percent of graduates in agriculture were women, 20.9 percent in engineering, 56 percent in health and welfare, 64.2 percent in natural sciences, and 36.8 percent were in ICT.
So given these extraordinary abilities, why are women still being put underneath a glass ceiling?

The answer to this question is multi-faceted. While many factors stand in the way of women joining the workforce, such as lack of formal employment opportunities, gender inequalities, precarious safety conditions at work and social problems of inclusiveness, according to this research, another major constraint facing women who wish to join the workforce as either employees or entrepreneurs is the balance of work and home life.

Other major barriers that face Egyptian women in entrepreneurship today are lack of appropriate educational background, lack of training opportunities for managing a business, and limited marketing and sales knowledge. Despite women consistently proving their capabilities, their access to such resources is limited due to cultural or financial issues, which can, unfortunately, keep them tied down and unable to move up the social ladder without depending on a male counterpart in the framework of a socially acceptable custom such as marriage.

There is also the issue of prejudice in which social norms make it difficult for women to run a business on their own. In 2016, a study conducted by the International Labor Office (ILO) found that in North Africa, 67 percent of women prefer to work at a paid job (which is only slightly below the global average of 70 percent) but cannot do so due to the social belief that they only belong at their homes.

The gender disparity between male and female entrepreneurs also speaks volumes of the challenges facing female entrepreneurs today. In 2014, the ILO found that female-run businesses were about 9 percent of the total number of self-employed/business owners in Egypt – while male business owners numbered a staggering six million. Not only this, but women owners were concentrated in rural areas (82 percent), and 18 percent are located in urban areas, which is in large contrast to the distribution of male business owners of 62 percent in rural areas and 38 percent in urban areas. Finally, women-owned micro and small Enterprises (MSEs) are smaller than male-owned MSEs, with an average of 1.85 workers, versus 2.12 workers respectively.

Minister of International Cooperation and AUC alumna, Rania Al-Mashat asserts that the barriers facing women today may be inexorable, but it is a puzzle that must be solved. Al-Mashat insists that gender does not play a role in success, and her words have been propelled into action when she established the “Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator” with partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the National Council for women (NCW) in July of 2020.
This initiative aims “to help governments and businesses take decisive action to close economic gender gaps.” By increasing women’s participation in the labor force, the accelerator will aid in gathering 100 companies guaranteeing to drive forward the agenda of the initiative, and take proactive action to bolster women’s economic empowerment. Al-Mashat hopes that this initiative will help develop all sectors in Egypt, especially in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), education, health and social protection.

Another organization that aims to aid women seeking to run their own businesses is the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund (EAEF), which is a U.S Government-funded private entity that aims to enhance development in the private sector in Egypt by helping SMEs get easier access to finance and technology, as well as achieve “long-term sustainable economic development.” It was established in 2013 and runs to this day, and is run by a board of directors who are either Egyptian-American or Egyptian nationals. Therefore, it is clear that even though women are still facing challenges in the workforce, many recognize their potential and seek to give them a helping hand in fulfilling their dreams that are driven by ambition rather than submissiveness to a male counterpart.

*Aesop’s Fables is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a storyteller who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE.

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