Dubai: It's as if the two expressions are symbiotically linked. Any discussion that relates to "women entrepreneurs in the Middle East" is inevitably followed by the mention of a "glass ceiling". More often than not, within the same sentence as well.
Does such a glass ceiling — one that works against more women launching businesses of their own and being successful — actually exist? Or is it more along the lines of an old wives' tale dressed up to serve as a plausible reason?
For Huda Abu Jamra, founding partner at the private equity firm TVM Capital Mena (Middle East and North Africa), the reasons why there are few women owning businesses are clear enough.
"The reality is there are few women in the workforce, especially in the private sector, so it follows that there are few women-owned businesses that private equity can invest in," she said.
"There is also something deeper at play — there are lots of social and cultural reasons why there are few women owning businesses, and gender equality has been identified as one of the seven major socio-economical challenges facing the Mena region," Huda added.
Indeed, there are the hard numbers to prove this could well be the case. In a recent report, the World Bank weighed in with the cold reality that women's representation in the region's labour force is the lowest worldwide.
Currently, it makes up a sorry sounding 21.5 per cent compared to the 43.9 per cent in high-income countries.
But even in this bleak landscape there are institutional initiatives — both government and privately led, as well as from overseas entities — that have allowed women to set up their own businesses and get on with it. But the levels of such funding support remain limited, by and large.
Standard Chartered Bank recently launched an Arabic version of the Women in Business Resource Centre, an online tool designed to help women entrepreneurs. The Centre directly provides educational and interactive components aimed at SMEs, including modules and exercises on business planning, leadership skills and finances.
"There is certainly a need for banks and other service providers to embark on dedicated programmes to support women getting into business," Huda said.
"There is some movement in the GCC, but still not enough is being done at the moment."
There is something of a broad consensus on this.
"In many countries one can obtain a business or project loan which is fin-anced based on the business plan," said Camilla D'abo, managing partner at Dabo and Co., a marketing and communications agency.
"However the UAE market largely relies more on historical data and the cashflow generating capacity of the business; therefore it can be extremely difficult to get finance for any new SME.
"From a personal perspective, as a communications services business our opening budget was very manageable and we didn't look for external funding for the initial capital outlay. In contrast, I would imagine the launch funds needed for a retail or trading company requiring investment in stock, retail space, large marketing expenses, etc. would be significant and there may be difficulties in obtaining financem," she said.
In this regard, a start-up will do well to bring in an auditor from the outset and thus create a strong credit history. Once that is done, the company is many ways closer to being considered eligible for loans.
Despite the inherent obstacles related to funding, there are more women out there launching their own businesses. But no one expects the process to be anything other than a gradual one. In other words, do not expect the trend to catch on.
But there are issues beyond funding that a potential woman entrepreneur has to come up against. While these are intangibles, it does not necessarily mean their impact is any less.
"As regional studies show, while they have the ambition they are often deterred by self doubt and over-cautiousness (according to the Women's Business Forum report, ‘Fostering Women's Entrepreneurship and Employment in the MENA' issued by the OECD)," said Huda.
"A factor that, in my mind, surely plays a big role here is the issue with combining family and business and how to make it work. This is no different in the West, where it is still one of the great challenges for working women.
"The mentality in the Middle East for business failure is less tolerant than in the US — for both men and women. But I believe for women it is even tougher because they are always made to feel guilty that they are taking away from their family time and kids."
Which does beg the question — how key is the G (gender) factor of the owner in determining the success of a business?
"We are in our seventh year of operations and have applied for bank facilities over the years as part of our growth and have been fortunate to receive very favourable terms," said D'abo.
"I cannot confirm that this is the case with all businesses, as my husband operates a successful trading company in its 13th year of operation and still faces problems with bank funding. Therefore, I do not believe this is an issue relating to being male or female."
And, for good measure, Huda has this to say: "I am personally convinced women-run businesses have the same chances to succeed if given the same support by family, friends and society. "They might be slower, but I think they are also much more careful than men in their approach to taking business risks."
What would help
According to Huda Abu Jamra of TVM Capital MENA, a start can be made by:
• Improving gender equality and social inclusion.
• Creating a support system that helps women to start and succeed in growing their businesses.
• Having loan programmes targeting women.
• Creating incubators to help women who desire to start out. Good ideas alone are not enough. Proper presentation is needed to the next level.
• Having service providers such as banks, law and accounting firms to give some pro bono advice to women when they are trying to start their business.