Women and business in the MENA region
The participation of women in the labor force in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the lowest in the world, at around 28%. In certain areas, this falls even lower – 11% in West Bank Gaza and 15% in Saudi Arabia. Out of 4,832 firms analysed in a 2007 World Bank study, only 13 were owned by women. Female unemployment is high, especially among the most educated women.
There have been significant improvements in recent decades: according to OECD the region has witnessed a faster increase in women’s share of economic activity of all other regions of the world between 1990 and 2003: 19% as opposed to 3% worldwide, which have accompanied a general improvement in the status of women in these countries, ranging from opportunities in education, greater public investment in healthcare services for women, and improved life expectancy.
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Reasons for low participation
Important obstacles to the participation rate of women in the labor force include: employer gender preferences and Wage Gaps Between Men and Women. Laws that restrict women’s freedom to work, travel or borrow from financial institutions have an adverse impact on women’s entrepreneurship. Lack of adequate childcare facilities also hinder the women’s possibility to work.
Social institutions unrelated to business legislation are key determinants in the low participation rate of women in the labor force, in other words. Although women are entitled to economic rights under the Islamic shari’a, other legislation reinforce gender roles, which lead to “overprotective laws or gendered legal interpretations,” according to a 2007 World Bank report. For instance, the labor codes of Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iran bar women from working during evening or night hours. In most countries, women face restrictions in their mobility, a necessary criteria for running a business, since they require their husband’s legal permission.
Gender Differences in types of business activities
A World Bank 2007 found that contrary to the stereotype that there is very little difference between male and female-owned firms in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The study argued “that female-owned firms in the region are as well-established, productive, technologically savvy and connected to global markets as male-owned firms.” Importantly, more female-owned businesses (31%) than male-owned businesses (24%) employed more than 100 employees. Female-owned businesses also employed a higher percentage of skilled and professional workers than male-owned businesses – and they also tend to employ more women than men at professional and managerial levels (except for Lebanon and Saudi Arabia).
Despite these firms’ similar characteristics and performance, the study also notes that women’s entrepreneurship in the region isn’t reaching its potential, despite an investment climate that is “much less gendered than suspected.” The report found that problems accessing finance and corruption were common to both men and women.
- OECD-MENA Women’s Business Forum, an open network to promote women’s economic opportunity in the MENA region
- The 2007 Declaration on Fostering Women’s Entrepreneurship in the MENA Region was adopted on the occasion of the Second Ministerial Meeting of the MENA-OECD Investment Programme on the 28 November 2007. To learn more about the 2009 Business Forum and Women Business Leaders Summit of the MENA-OECD Investment Programme (to be held on 22 November 2009 in Marrakech, Morocco), clickhere.
- To find our what progress has been made in improving the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa, read Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010, paper by Freedom House
- Female Entrepreneurs in Middle East and North Africa Defy Expectations (World Bank, 2007)
- OECD-MENA Women’s Business Forum