Events Ascame/ March 4, 2024/ Featured, Institutional

Businesswomen and women entrepreneurs are driving a positive change and shaping the economic landscape in the Mediterranean. For instance, one in three start-ups in the Mediterranean region is founded or led by a woman. This is a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. In the Mediterranean region, women are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the start-up scene. In addition, there are increasing examples of women entrepreneurs that have created highly successful firms and inspire young generations.

However, there is a long way to go. Inequalities affecting women in the business sector have deep roots, ranging from cultural factors to insufficient support for women-led businesses, the lack of policy frameworks to address the gender gap and the challenge of promoting work-family reconciliation, among others. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which is the world’s foremost study of entrepreneurship, states that only six economies (Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Peru and Indonesia) women show equal or higher entrepreneurship rates than men.

Apart from this, there is a gender gap in companies’ leadership positions. Despite companies are modestly increasing women’s representation at the top, men end up holding 60% of manager level positions in a typical company, while women occupy 40%, according to the latest Women in the Workplace 2023 Report from McKinsey. This situation is even more serious in tech positions. According to the World Economic Forum, women are underrepresented in emerging roles linked to Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence or machine learning. For instance, in cloud computing, just 12% of professionals are women, in engineering and Data & AI, the numbers are 15% and 26 respectively. In addition, the number of women occupying senior and influential positions within the civil service, diplomatic corps, the judiciary and local government remains low.

Consequently, the influence of women as a driving force of social change has not been fully developed and the impact of an increased number of women in politics is still difficult to gauge.

Empowering women entrepreneurs in the Mediterranean

Within the 15th Mediterranean Women Entrepreneurs Forum, co-organized along with the Association of Organisations of Mediterranean Busineswomen (AFAEMME) in the framework of MedaWeek Barcelona 2023, Mr. Ahmed El Wakil, President of ASCAME, pointed out that “entrepreneurship is the key to boosting women’s economic inclusion, particularly in the Mediterranean and Africa”. In his opinion, Today, “Mediterranean women entrepreneurs have an even more pivotal involvement towards economic and social development but they need better opportunities and better access to financing to help ensure a more equitable, sustainable role in business development in the region”. Mr. El Wakil added: “We need to promote potential mechanism to bring together investors, regulators and financial institutions to accelerate lending to women-led firms, as well as issues around definitions of women-owned and led enterprises and harmonization of reporting. The goal is to spur collective action and challenge the regional and international financial community to commit to tracking and growing financing to women”.

In addition, Ms. Mª Helena de Felipe, President of AFAEMME -which joins 63 businesswomen organizations from 23 countries across the Mediterranean region and promotes women in businesses and in decision-making positions- and VP of CEPYME, assures that “despite lower participation rates in entrepreneurship than men, women entrepreneurs are a significant untapped source of economic growth”. To her, “Women enhance national prosperity and contribute to economic growth and better future, especially because women usually reinvest a much higher part of their earnings in their families and communities (in emerging markets, women reinvest 90% of their earnings), spreading wealth and creating a positive impact on the future development”.

Mª Helena de Felipe highlights 5 main obstacles when talking about women entrepreneurs in the Mediterranean: lack of experience –“the majority of unskilled or less skilled women entrepreneurs lack the ability to prepare their companies for survival and growth-, lack of role models –“by having less women entrepreneurs than men there are automatically less successful women entrepreneurs than men and therefore less close and impacting role models for aspiring women entrepreneurs”, lack of financial assets, which are a prerequisite for starting a firm, lack of time, which is related to women’s domestic and childcare responsibilities –“they don’t usually have enough free time to develop their entrepreneurial skills, to meet potential supporters / investors, to access to specific training or to seek for better customers or suppliers”-, and lack of relevant networks –“women are less present in professional and entrepreneurial networks that can guarantee them access to critical resources, support and information”-.

In this sense, Ms. Blanca Sorigué, Managing Director at Consorci de la Zona Franca Barcelona, insists on the need to promote the presence of women in management positions, not only to advance towards gender equality but also to break stereotypes. In her opinion, “a greater presence of women in senior management positions will not only generate positive results in the company but will also serve as a role model for other women, boosting their participation in historically masculinized areas”. Ms. Sorigué adds: “This change will require strengthening public and private collaboration and the commitment of society as a whole to create equitable opportunities and encourage the identification of new generations with diverse roles in the workplace. It is essential to collaborate altogether to promote female leadership at all levels, from education to work, in any professional role, not just managerial positions”.

Main differences among Mediterranean regions

Do women from all countries of the Mediterranean region share the same challenges? In this respect, there is much to said and done, especially in the MENA region. To Ms.Najoua Attia, President of Cap Bon Chamber of Commerce and Industry and President of ASCAME’s Women Entrepreneurs Commission, “women entrepreneurs in the MENA region face specific challenges linked to their social, economic and regulatory environment, which can limit their opportunities for success compared to their counterparts in Europe”. However, “despite these obstacles, many women entrepreneurs in the MENA countries manage to overcome their current challenges and succeed in the business world”. Ms. Attia adds: ”The access to financial resources, regulations and entrepreneurial laws can be more restrictive in his region, whereas in Europe women entrepreneurs generally have easier access to finance and investment. Apart from this, the social perception of female entrepreneurship is generally better accepted and valued in Europe than in the MENA region”.

Besides, it is estimated that in the MENA region more than 60% of women work in informal economy. Although the MENA region has the largest number of females studying in the world, they remain invisible in job markets due to cultural and social norms.

In addition, Ms. Najoua Attia refers to the situation of women from North Africa, “who face significant barriers to equal opportunities in education, employment and political participation; traditional gender roles and societal norms often limit women’s autonomy and decision-making power”.

To shift this situation, Ms. Blanca Sorigué is committed to “focusing on the inequalities and gender stereotypes that still exist, as well as promoting access to education, increasing economic resources and boosting women’s decision-making capacity in each of the regions”. In her opinion, “it is essential to foster greater cooperation between public and private actors in the Mediterranean to effectively advance towards gender equality, as established in the United Nations 2030 Agenda”.

On the other hand, Ms. Sana Afouaiz, Founder of Womenpreneur Initiative -a network of 20,000 women entrepreneurs in 23 countries and author of the book Invisible women in the Middle East– prefers to avoid comparison between women in Europe and in the MENA region: “We tend to compare women from the West to the East, like those who live better lives and those who don’t, who have freedom and who don’t. For sure, looking into the realities of women in the West and the East, definitely there are differences in terms of accessing to justice institutions, incentiving gender laws, gender mainstream on different levels. But we can also find that North Africa is more learned and more advanced on other level. Comparing East and West contributes to enforce stereotypes”.

The key role of the Mediterranean Chambers of Commerce

The chambers of commerce play a pivotal role in reducing discrimination and addressing gender inequality in the Mediterranean region. According to Ms. Riam, President of Economic Businesswomen Council at Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, “these institutions promote work-life balance, create open minded atmosphere, increase hiring diversity, provide mentorship for everyone and bridge generation gap”. In March of 2015, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce put in action 5 SDGs and launched the Economic Businesswomen Council. To Siam, “since that time I have dedicated my work to celebrating female talent and fostering an inclusive ecosystem. I have been instrumental in creating an inclusive women’s culture at the chambers of commerce across Egypt by bringing awareness to chamber’s impactful and inclusion initiatives and programmes”. In fact, ChamWomenpreneurs exchange was one of the initiatives launched by this institution with the aim at encouraging dialogue between women entrepreneurs from local and international level. “We wanted that every women in business could access to the tools to realize their fullest economic potential”.

In the same line, Ms. Najoua Attia insists on the “key role of the chambers of commerce in supporting SMEs to adopt diversity and inclusion policies by promoting the participation of women, young people and minorities”. She adds: “Not forgetting the cooperation programmes that enable CCIs to contribute to a more inclusive Mediterranean, in which economic opportunities are accessible to all and economic development is sustainable and equitable”.

ASCAME contributes to ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in economic and social environments. A direct path to that goal is the women’s economic empowerment, which impacts on sustainable and economic development of the Mediterranean region. For this reason, ASCAME organizes every year the Mediterranean Women Entrepreneurs Forum at MedaWeek, which has become the businesswomen forum of reference in the Mediterranean. Every year, this forum brings together leading businesswomen, global leaders, partners from private and public sector and entrepreneurs from across the Mediterranean. They all identify sectorial opportunities and access to financing, to help ensure a more equitable and sustainable business ecosystem. In the last 15th edition, the panelists told about women in leadership positions, new solutions to overcome barriers, the financial challenge and new ways to empowering young Mediterranean women.

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