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Society holds back women entreprenuers — study

Saudi women cite lack of mobility and reliance on men as impediments to progress

Gulf News

Dubai: They have the money and the brains but they still need men. And that makes them angry.

“Why would you need my guardian? I am here. I am qualified! And I am the one who is funding!” said a Saudi woman who is aspiring to become an entrepreneur in a pre-school business.

The opinion of the woman, whose identity was not revealed and who was only identified as Sara, was included in a recently published report on Saudi women’s participation in the entrepreneurial sector.

Titled Giving Voice to Women Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia, the report talked about the obstacles facing women entering the entrepreneurial sector. “This report differs from other existing reports in two ways: the way it was conducted and the conclusion that it is social obstacles more than economic factors that women face [in Saudi Arabia unlike in other societies],” said Saudi woman activist Hessa Al Shaikh, co-author of the report.

Both writers of the report, Hessa and Kelly Lavelle, are co-founding directors of Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), a non-profit organisation that develops and works on projects that aim to enable positive change for women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The report was based on three workshops held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh between August 2011 and April 2012. The information gathered was a result of “in-depth discussions” and “revisions with the participants” in the workshops, and “not just filling questionnaires”, Hessa explained to Gulf News.

“Obstacles facing women are related, to a great extent, to organisational procedures associated with the guardian, [business] manager and the social status of the woman and her access to mobility without the approval of the husband [or the guardian]”, Hessa said.

While the money is available, the high percentage of unemployment among Saudi women means there is “great potential to grab any opportunity and start their own business”, said Hessa. But social norms constitute main obstacles.

According to a 2012 labour force survey, the unemployment rate among females reached 34 per cent compared with 6.9 per cent among males.

At the same time, nearly 70 per cent of educated Saudi women have completed their bachelor’s degree. Saudi women’s cash fortunes are believed to be estimated at $11 billion (Dh40.38 billion), apart from their assets.

“Why would my brother be my guardian? My income is much better than an undergraduate’s and my experience is much more! He is much younger than me and yet he has been accepted as the shop manager by the authorities. This makes my self-esteem sink really low,” said another Saudi woman, named Fahadh, who is a co-owner of a clothing design and printing business in the Kingdom.

Current obstacles, according to the report, include restricted access to government services, the requirement for a “mudeer” or male manager, restricted licensing options, and lack of support services.

On the other hand, the report noted that women entrepreneurs lack essential competencies and capacities for successful entrepreneurship. These include a lack of self-confidence, reluctance to take tangible risks and lack of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

As an example of the social obstacles facing Saudi women and how family support is crucial, Hessa noted that most of the prominent Saudi businesswomen come from rich families and were backed by their relatives.

Saudi women have made many achievements in the past five decades in many sectors. However, their abilities are not yet fully used in the biggest oil-producing country in the world. Their successes in some areas are not being translated into tangible participation in the entrepreneurial sector.

The number of women entrepreneurs is “very small and limited”, said Hessa, without giving any figures.

According to figures of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the number of enterprises in 2010 was 218,400, up from 121,500 just four years earlier. However, it is difficult to measure the number of women entrepreneurs because of the high incidence of sleeping partners in the Saudi business community, and the complexities in the regulatory environment where women register their businesses under names of men and vice versa.

But according to UN figures, women-owned registered commercial enterprises stood at over 47,400 at the end of 2010, up from 22,500 registered in May 2004 and 35,400 in January 2009.

More women are asking for their economic rights, said Hessa. More education of women means more females looking for jobs, she said.

“The change is coming,” said Hessa, who herself is a pioneer in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.


Outspoken advocate

Hessa Al Shaikh is a committed and outspoken advocate of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She was among 47 women who took part in a historic demonstration in Riyadh in November 1990 asking for the right of women to drive. She and another Saudi woman activist Aisha Al Mane have written a book “6th November 1990: Women driving in Saudi Arabia’, which was published recently.

“Thank God, it was a very enriching experience and my convictions on the issue don’t contradict the religion or laws,” said the Saudi woman.

After the demonstration, the Saudi authorities banned women from travel for several months, and suspended them from working or going to schoool.

“If it was not for my husband’s support, I wouldn’t have moved one inch, and the situation would have been worse,” recalled Hessa in praising her husband’s support.

After she was suspended from college she continued her social work. Later she was able to obtain her PhD in Educational Management from King Saud University. She later became the Dean of the College of Women at Al Yamamah University.