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.
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.”
* 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.