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Helping break down barriers for female entrepreneurs in the UAE

Empowering female entrepreneurs in the UAE is the focus of a partnership between NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, a public non-profit organisation, and UN Women.

Stimulating Equal Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs, a capacity-building programme to support potential and established female entrepreneurs in the UAE, is the most recent outcome of this partnership.

To better assess the needs of these entrepreneurs, UN Women will be surveying 1,000 female entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs over the next three months.

Reem Bin Karam, director of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, and Dr Mouza Al Shehhi, director of the UN Women Liaison office for the GCC, shed light on the status of female entrepreneurs in the UAE and on the significance of their joint programme.

How would you describe the current situation for female entrepreneurs in the UAE?

RBK: The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has had a substantial impact on the global economic system and disproportionately affected women entrepreneurs everywhere, largely because their firms are younger, smaller, and concentrated in those sectors most severely impacted by the economic shutdown.

What has been encouraging, however, is to see the resourcefulness of our women entrepreneurs who accelerated the transformation to the digital space to streamline their operations in line with the situation. Many women entrepreneurs have used innovative approaches to pivot their business models and capture a share of the emerging market opportunities in new sectors.

Several organisations, including the Sharjah Business Women Council and Badiri Education and Development Academy, both affiliates of NAMA, provide education and training opportunities as well as business-set-up-support to help women entrepreneurs identify their creative potential and make their entrepreneurial dream a reality.

Reem Bin Karam, director of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment

Specialised packages for women-led business enterprises available in free zones across the UAE are driving unique opportunities for women entrepreneurs, particularly in emerging fields of knowledge-intensive businesses and in the wider digital technology ecosystem.

What do you believe are the main challenges women entrepreneurs in the region are facing?

MAS: The barriers women entrepreneurs face because of discrimination and adverse social norms make it harder for women to own and grow a business compared to men. Women who face multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination face even greater barriers.

Women are often burdened with a disproportionate share of the responsibility of unpaid care-work of children, elderly and sick family members and so they face constraints in starting and/or growing their business.Access to finance is also a problem.

Women’s enterprises are concentrated in sectors with low barriers to entry and limited growth potential because of persistent gender asset gaps and unequal access to collateral. Only about 14 to 19 percent of International Finance Corporation loans are issued to women-owned SME clients, despite evidence that they perform just as well as those owned by men.

RBK: In general, financial institutions do not offer women the same terms as men even if they qualify for debt financing. This is why we need to leverage more tailored financial support for women entrepreneurs with facilitated payment terms and low-interest rates.

MAS: Barriers to market access are also a challenge whereby large corporations and governments usually select suppliers who have proven track records and can provide goods and services in large quantities and at lower prices. This is a challenge for women businesses that are mostly micro to small businesses.

Unless investments are made in building new skills, women will lose business opportunities because they are less likely to be engaged in growth sectors such as technology and energy where there is more profit potential.

What has been the major achievements for women empowerment in the UAE?

MAS: There are many positive changes which have taken place recently in regards to women empowerment in the GCC. We in the UN, with the support of the UAE government, are working on empowering female entrepreneurs in the GCC through effecting policy change.

We’ve already felt a shift but this needs continued and consistent effort and continued collaboration with the authorities to change policies. It also depends on our networking and the media: we have to make the public understand why it is important to support women entrepreneurs.

What is the significance of the flagship Programme initiative?

RBK: NAMA forged a partnership with UN Women in 2017 to implement its three-year Flagship Programme Initiative (FPI) Stimulating Equal Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa, UAE, and the region under the guidance of NAMA chairperson Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi.

This FPI is vital to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 relating to gender equity, and Goal 8 that promotes inclusive sustainable growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

This capacity building and advocacy programme aims at supporting women entrepreneurs in accessing opportunities by fostering gender-responsive public and private procurement to enhance their participation in supply chains, and to strengthen their access to finance. The primary beneficiaries of the programme are current and potential women entrepreneurs.

How will the survey conducted by UN women support FPI? How many will be surveyed and how do you plan to disseminate the survey?

MAS: The survey would allow us to reach out to current and future women entrepreneurs in the UAE, understand their needs and challenges to provide them with the necessary support to overcome barriers and grow their business.

Dr Mouza Al Shehhi, director of the UN Women Liaison office for the GCC

We are aiming to have at least 1,000 respondents, a good representative sample of local and international women entrepreneurs in the various emirates. Dissemination of the survey will be through our network of partners across the UAE and through social media platforms.

Once the results of the survey are out, we will assess how to move forward in supporting women entrepreneurs in the UAE. As a liaison office in the GCC, we will also look at expanding the program into other GCC countries.

What do you think is needed for the region to see more women in leadership positions and finding a place on boards of companies? 

RBK: Despite making up half the population, we find that women are poorly represented in the boardroom or senior positions within organisations globally.

In a survey undertaken by NAMA in collaboration with the Pearl Initiative (a non-profit organisation founded in cooperation with the United Nations Office for Partnerships) last year, 73 percent of the respondents in the Gulf region said that their direct managers were men. This chronic underrepresentation clearly demonstrates a gap in women in business leadership positions.

According to a 2019 ILO report, quite often, female managers are concentrated in business support functions, such as HR, finance and administration, which offer them limited opportunities to rise in the company, whereas men have decision-making roles at higher levels.

Organisational culture is a key determinant in boosting gender diversity in top leadership positions. Systems and institutions run by men are quite often out of touch with the reality of women’s challenges in their organisation.

Therefore, organisations must establish hiring policies that support gender diversity, offer the provision of training and development opportunities for women, and establish mentor and sponsorship programmes to facilitate the career growth and development of women employees.

What other projects is UN Women working on in the region?

MAS: My initial focus when I first assumed this role in 2017 (one year after the liaison office was set-up) was to engage in networking and advocacy to raise awareness on what UN Women is doing in this region and highlighting the positive aspects of women in the GCC. We are trying to be involved in Expo 2020 as another avenue through which to highlight our work.

We have a lot of priorities, which include empowering women in leadership and economy; this is why we started collaborating with NAMA. We also focus on protection against violence and on increasing the number of women in peace-keeping troops. We recently launched Unstereotype Alliance to challenge the portrayal of women in the media.

Several big multinationals have joined in the launch of this alliance and we are working to attract more big companies in media to it.

The UAE can play a big role in economic women empowerment but this has to be through public-private partnerships. The private sector has to be convinced that this is a good thing for their company, not just for the women employees. We need more awareness of this and we are working on that but it will take time.



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