The Middle East North Africa (MENA) region has the lowest rate of women entrepreneurs in the world.
The business case for digitally empowering women to contribute fully in the workplace is clear.
Role models are needed to cut through cultural barriers and show that women can be successful in the world of work.
ICT tools that enable women to control their financial situation equips them to plan their futures and play a greater economic role in society.
Failure to integrate women in the manufacturing and engineering sectors will lead to a widening of the gender gap. The EU launched an initiative in 2013 to address this issue in the MENA region, where barriers to information communication technology (ICT) access persist. For example, often even if a woman owns a smart phone, it is likely to be registered for a man.
Gender disaggregated data is needed to target the gaps, but many governments are not equipped to gather such data. Questions must be relevant and not addressed solely to the head of the household, who is likely to be a man. Technology could help women farmers in North Africa, for example, but it is important to ensure that applications, their content and language, are relevant to women. In this case, therefore, a thorough gender analysis would allow for the better design of ICT tools.
In Tunisia, although more than half of university places are taken up by women, just 8 % of women head up SMEs. Cultural, as well as technological barriers, are clearly a factor. Education may not be geared to equipping people, women in particular, for finding employment, and marketplace incentives for women are also often lacking. Attitudes to maternity leave and the traditional role of women represent an obstacle to women who may want to pursue a career.
The private sector can be a valuable partner in closing the gender gap through digital technology, as Cisco Systems is demonstrating in the MENA region. It runs networking academies and ICT days for girls that have a track record of aiding them to find employment. Cisco says that cultural diversity is the fabric of the business. With an executive board that is around 60 % women, it benefits from different voices. But it has achieved this culture without the use of quotas – and so has avoided the negative optic of positive discrimination. Quotas may be helpful to kick-start a change in business culture, but they should be temporary.
The importance of positive role models cannot be overstated. They show what is possible and help inspire others to pursue similar goals. As well as lacking the same access to funding as men, as they are less in control of their finances, women often do not make the same demands.
Female architects in Palestine engaged in a project to redevelop public squares made sure that designs were gender responsive: they relocated toilets to the better-lit, ‘women friendly’ side of the square.