Global Women's Forum
Women-owned businesses need access to funding, and this is what state support can provide. A file image from the recent Global Women's Forum in Dubai Image Credit: Dubai Media Office

Dubai: Appoint more women to corporate board of directors. Do whatever’s possible to help women entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

As far as intentions are concerned, these are as good as it gets these days. But in the real world, even the best intentions do not get the expected results.

Just ask Jamila Belabidi-Chahid, and you’ll know why. “I will share an example of a woman-owned company - she was very ambitious and a strong performer,” said Belabidi-Chahid, who is the Head of Global Women Economic Empowerment and Global Innovation Purchases at Procter & Gamble. “As such, we introduced her to our network and she gained more contracts to a point where she could take the next step.

“But she was blocked… as financial institutions would not support her. Eventually, we worked on some solutions to enable her, but the barriers are as basic as this.”

Which can be quite unfortunate, because more women in the UAE and Gulf are entering the start-up universe. Obviously, the spread of digital technology has allowed them to reach out to their intended audiences at a much lower cost than in the past.

P&G Woman
Jamila Belabidi-Chahid, Head of Global Women Economic Empowerment at Procter & Gamble, on the right, Elizabeth Vasquez of WEConnect International, left, and May Ali Babiker, Manager for Women and Youth Empowerment, at Islamic Development Bank (IsDB). Image Credit: Supplied

Even then, “The cultural shift required is universal,” said Belabidi-Chahid. “Gender bias manifests in different ways in different parts of the world.

“In an ideal world you would not need quotas/targets - however to create equitable change, change must be measurable. (Something that) would recommend positive action and positive policies and which recognizes “real” efforts from companies.”

The French way

Belabidi-Chahid, who was in Dubai for the Global Women’s Forum, said empowering women in the workforce and in business could learn a thing or two from the French.

Does she see it as a sort of benchmark? “I think so - first, it comes with a strong sponsorship from the President of the nation,” she added. “Then their approach is an interesting one as they first run a public consultation - asking about what the French think about women in the economy and what can everyone (government and beyond) do to close the gap.

“In addition, the government is working in a new law to fuel more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the economy in general.

“The Women’s Forum has, with support of strategic members, defined a set of recommendations about how women entrepreneurs can access more the value chains of multinationals.”

No easy way

There are many who believe that creating more women-owned businesses and having more of them take up roles on corporate boards should be treated as two different priorities. Mixing them up would only dilute any future gains, they add.

But Belabidi-Chahid does not share such a defined perspective. “We don’t think this is an either/or situation,” she said. “For there to be holistic economic empowerment, both women-owed businesses need to thrive as well as have more women in corporate boardrooms.

“That said, while the business case is clear for women-owned companies - it has not yet translated into enough activity nor sustained action. We also know that when women take the CEO or take seats at a board level, they influence positively gender equality policies for the company and outside of the company. Not to mention the better company results.”

A checklist of challenges
According to Jamila Belabidi-Chahid, women-owned companies, whatever the size or maturity level they are at, face challenges in:
* Access to equal opportunity, including experience with big businesses and capability building;
* Cultural barriers, which include gender bias on capability and competency;
* Getting funding support;
* Unpaid care and work at home: Equality at work does not happen without equality at home. If a woman is the sole caregiver for kids/parents and is expected to be the only one to look after the housework once back home, this is an inhibitor to her full potential at work.
The business of “deliberate intent”
One way to tilt the gender balance at work is get the backing of companies with scale. Jamila Belabidi-Chahid calls it “deliberate intent”. At its Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa operations, P&G aims to spend $150 million working with women-owned businesses, as part of a deliberate policy.