Can Women Entrepreneurs Have It All? Conclusions from Our First W4Women Rountable

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Can women entrepreneurs in the Arab world really have it all?

This was the question we asked some of Egypt’s most outspoken female founders at our very first Wamda for Women Entrepreneurs (W4WE) roundtable this past Saturday in Cairo.

After Wamda’s Mix n’ Mentor event, 30 women gathered for a debate that continued for two hours, despite a power outage.

Yet we didn’t need electricity to spark heated debates. As we shared stereotypes, role models, experiences finding finance, and balancing work with life in the pitch dark, we came to 8 basic conclusions (below).

These conclusions build upon the discussion that has been raging globally, reignited by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book Lean In, which examines the reasons women are being held back in the workplace.

Female pundits have called Sandberg’s book elitist, superficial, and confusing, while others have fiercely defended her advice. Yet the most important element of the debate about what represents us is that it’s happening.

After all, as Mitra Kalita of Quartz put it, “the one thing worse than women who can’t have it all are those who have nothing.” In the U.S., for one, that pool is growing.

In the Arab world as well, women’s unemployment is a big challenge. It’s perhaps not quite as dire as portrayed; the statistic that only 32% of women are employed across Middle East and North Africa belies the fact that the informal sector may account for 40% of women’s employment.

In Egypt, increasing women’s unemployment stands to boost GDP by 34-56%. Yet all too often in this part of the world, the discussion of what women want in the workplace starts and ends here, with a focus on women’s impact on GDP.

Especially in Egypt, where the current regime has rejected the U.N.’s attempt to quell violence against women, do we really need to hear another definition of success based on GDP? Or recommendations for empowering women by transforming government policies or societal norms? Let’s not hold our breath.

The goal of our Wamda for Women Entrepreneurs roundtables is to refocus the conversation on what women can do right now to empower each other.

After all, as Wamda contributor Gulay Ozkan asserts, maybe starting a business is one of the best ways to have it all. And women are perhaps better positioned than they’ve ever been to take the lead in the Middle East.

Female college graduates outnumber men in most Middle East countries. Most women who own businesses are finding ways to balance their lives: 83% of women entrepreneurs in the Arab world work over 40 hours a week, although the majority (64%) are married. (Unlike in the West, many manage with the help of close-knit families.) 

Lest you assume most of them are running small-scale catering businesses, 80% of women-led businesses plan to scale, 30% are large scale, and, one study found, women-led firms that are more tech-savvy than those led by men.

As we shared stories with each other and took an honest look at the challenges women in Egypt face, we came up with a few preliminary conclusions: 

  1. Women need to be assertive in the workplace despite negative stereotypes.
  2. We need to encourage each other to talk about our accomplishments, sometimes working together to pitch each other’s companies at investor events.
  3. Women need to have an accurate sense of their duties and not feel overly responsible for others on their teams, or as though they need to mother the office. 
  4. We need to speak out when banks are asking biased questions about whether they will get married or have children when applying for bank loans. (Although none of the women on the table were rejected for funding). 
  5. Most women on the tables cited their mother as their role model. Women should teach their daughters to aspire to work and raise their children to ascribe less to gender stereotypes.
  6. We should mentor each other in groups, online. 
  7. We can leverage technology to balance our lives and stay united with our families. 
  8. Every woman should feel a responsibility towards being an active role model and helping other women. 

Do you agree?

To build on these conclusions, Wamda for Women Entrepreneurs will be covering the stories of the region’s female role models, opening avenues for mentorship, and brainstorming technologies for work/life balance on our Facebook Group, Google+ community, and LinkedIn group.

We'll also be bringing this discussion to every major city in the Arab world, coming next to Doha in late April. Join us. 

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