Gender discrimination in entrepreneurship: MENA women’s take

Women empowerment is a key issue in the startup ecosystem

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This is the first of two articles about how recent global developments affecting gender dynamics and discrimination against women in tech are mirrored – or not – in the MENA region   

For a decade, Silicon Valley was mired in gender discrimination and sexual harassment of women that went largely undocumented and unreported, owing to a sexist workplace culture and biased company policies. It took the fall from grace of several revered (male) venture capitalists and techstars in the first half of 2017 – from 500 Startups’ Dave McLure and Chris Sacca to Uber and ex-Google exec Amit Singhal to Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck – for the industry to take action aimed at better protecting women. What is it about the last six months that has thrust such cases into the spotlight?

The times they are (finally) a-changin’

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, a Dubai-based angel investment platform, states that the phenomenon of women breaking into the tech world and climbing the corporate ladder has made all the difference. “The fact that sexual harassment in tech exists is not shocking,” Freiha told Wamda. Why’s it earning headlines now? “Because the hottest topic is women’s empowerment, and the hottest career choice [for women] is startups and tech,” she said. Freiha maintains that the attention brought to bear on the subject is justified, and that it has pushed many women tech professionals to speak out for the first time.

“I plan on doing the same thing,” remarked Summer Nasief, whose last stint was that of innovations director of Honeywell Middle East’s healthcare arm. A tech corporate old-timer, Nasief started with IBM’’s San Francisco office in 2001, moved to its Los Angeles office in 2005, and then to the Dubai headquarters in 2009, from which she spearheaded efforts to set up the Saudi Arabia office in 2012.

Nasief pointed out that a woman will bide her time before saying anything about male colleagues’ or superiors’ harassment or misogyny, to preserve an often tenuous position in the company where she works. Yet, once such women reach the top, as is increasingly happening these days, “they have nothing to lose anymore” by speaking out.

Nevertheless, as Freiha noted, the overall number of women in tech remains low when compared to that of men. This reality, combined with the fact that those who experience discrimination often have reservations about going public with their claims, militates against a clamoring for action on the part of the industry’s women.

In the Middle East, there isn’t a dialogue around sexual harassment.

Delineating parameters

Regardless of gender, with their success riding on the power of personal relationships, entrepreneurs are often rendered vulnerable during make-or-break moments, especially in informal afterhour settings.

“And [when somebody in] a position of power makes you feel like they can help alleviate some of that [pressure] in exchange for [something],” explained Freiha, it becomes all the more difficult to draw the line “between appropriate and inappropriate.”  

Cultural obstacles

In workplace settings where inappropriate banter is a conversational norm, it is difficult to convince men, or even women, that they are doing anything wrong.

Meanwhile, “in the Middle East, there isn’t a dialogue around sexual harassment, because a culture of modesty among men and women creates the assumption that there is no such thing,” said Freiha.

Yet a 2013 poll of over 500 women across MENA undertaken by Al Aan TV in partnership with YouGov, the relevant portion of which was not made public but shared exclusively with Wamda, shows that the problem exists. Of the women surveyed, 11 percent claim that they have been verbally sexually abused, and four percent that they have been physically sexually abused, at work.

In the corporate ecosystem, the consensus remains that harassment pales in comparison with putatively larger gender inequality issues in the region. “I’ve experienced working with men who did not want to work with women, or did not take me seriously. I was the founder of the company and their boss,” recounted Delphine Edde, cofounder of Diwanee.

Nasief has experienced harassment in the US, and discrimination in MENA. A Saudi national, her most revealing experiences were in her home market. By her account, she’s had to contend with doubts as to whether (given her mixed parentage) she truly qualifies as Saudi. Worse yet, top decision-makers leveraged “any means to gender discriminate” against her, handing her sectors where the KSA’s corporate segregation environment made it nearly impossible for women to do, let alone grow, business.

Underlying reasons

Michele Madansky, co-author of a survey titled Elephant in the Valley, pinpointed “two basic issues” in workplace discrimination against women. The first is “unconscious bias,” which manifests itself in “small slights/behaviors that may seem innocuous, but over time build up in importance.” The second is “leaders tolerating some of the egregious behavior from a minority of men who they deem ‘high performers.’ ”

The survey, which included over 200 women working in Silicon Valley, revealed that over 60 percent of respondents claim to have been excluded from networking opportunities due to their gender, and asked about marriage and kids during interviews.

Even in the comparatively progressive investment environment, someone such as Freiha was obliged to call out male colleagues on their subconscious bias. She had to present them with numerical evidence showing everything from a lack of female cofounders on company portfolios to tougher downward valuation negotiations with women.

According to Nasief, bridging this gap starts with a question: “How do you build a structure where everybody can evolve to get that level of understanding of equality and be helped along the way?”

Ultimately, while the onus may be on women entrepreneurs to assert themselves, it is necessary to make clear to male investors that their crossing the line – whether consciously or not – has its consequences.

Feature images via Pixabay.

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