International Women’s Day: Across the Region, the Fields Where Women Are Excelling May Surprise You
As we mark International Women’s Day, it’s worth keeping the following in mind: in Pakistan, the ratio of female to male medical school students is substantially higher than the ratio in U.S. medical schools, and across the Arab world, there are more women involved in tech startups than in Silicon Valley.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the authors of the e-book “Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World,” for every woman entrepreneur in the region, there are six women who would like to set up a business, while for every male entrepreneur, there are only 2.5 more men who intend to do the same.
At a summit in New York, Rahilla Zafar, one of the book’s authors, told attendees that 90% of computer science students from Yemen to Saudi Arabia are women, adding that tech incubators in Saudi Arabia now have more female employees than those in New York City or Silicon Valley. And since a majority of the people in the Arab world are under the age of 30, Zafar said women “are playing a pivotal role in creating millions of the jobs about to be created” in the region.”
An essay by Soraya Salti, senior vice president of the Middle East & North Africa for Junior Achievement Worldwide for INJAZ Al-Arab, discussed the entrepreneurial mindset of a growing number of young Arab women. She cited the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Index, which found that women in Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Morocco were on par with, or outperformed, their male counterparts in literacy and educational enrollment rates. A UNESCO paper shows that the share of women graduates in the sciences is higher in the Middle East than in Western Europe.
‘Reverse gender gap’
A seminal World Bank study, “Opening Doors,” found that the ratio of women to men enrolled in university education in the region tripled to 112% in 2010. In fact, eight MENA countries have a “reverse gender gap” in education at the university level. Even at the elementary level, girls in the region outperform boys in mathematics in grade 4, and this “gap” continues through grade 8 in some countries.
In Pakistan in 1990, the ratio of female-to-male enrollment in primary education was 52%; by 2010 that figure had improved to 82%. Meanwhile, in medical schools in Pakistan, women make up a clear majority of students, with ratios as much as 80% in favor of female students.
Pakistani working women are not only leading in the field of medicine, but also in IT. Jehan Ara, President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & IT Enabled Services (P@SHA), exemplifies this. She is an entrepreneur, a speaker, a marketing professional and a social activist who promotes IT as a tool to empower and enable communities. She also is active in encouraging more women to enter the IT industry.
Saudi Hayat Sindi reflects the academic commitment of women in the region. This scientist, inventor and social entrepreneur worked hard to earn acceptance to Cambridge University, then earn a PhD in Biotechnology. Since then, she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and was recently ranked among the top 20 most powerful Arab women in 2015. She is the founder of the i2 Institute, an initiative that seeks to mentor and develop the region’s future inventors and entrepreneurs.
Growing female workforce participation
On a macro level, these encouraging educational figures have been partly reflected in increased labor participation across some countries in the MENA region and Pakistan. This is most notable in the UAE, where female participation is about 47% and women comprise about two-thirds of government-sector workers. The UAE’s female labor participation rate is only marginally below the global average and higher than Mexico, Hungary and Croatia. Kuwait follows close behind the UAE, and Djibouti is next.
This has produced a number of entrepreneurs and business leaders, including Algerian business woman Nadia Habes, who runs a large pharmaceutical group that employs more than 450 people and operates three subsidiaries (INPHA-Medis, Phyteal and Pytopharma) producing drugs and dermo-cosmetics; a distribution company (GAP / Algerian Pharmaceutical Group) and an R&D facility. In 2013, she was selected as the best business leader at the Global Forum of Women Entrepreneurs.
In Egypt, entrepreneurship was ultimately the route that Yasmine El-Mehairy took. She began with a computer science degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo and then earned a scholarship to obtain her master’s degree in the United Kingdom. She returned to Egypt to join a regional IT giant and then left to join a startup that worked primarily for NGOs, and now is the founder and CEO of startup SuperMama.me, an Arabic-language website for moms. With a tagline “Everything is under control,” SuperMama is the top online destination for mothers in Egypt, reaching over 1.7 million women monthly through the website and its Youtube channel.
Ministers, parliamentarians, diplomats
Working women also are playing an increasing role in other spheres, including government and politics, as noted during the recent Beijing +20 conference in Cairo. UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said that Arab women’s representation in parliament had increased over the past 20 years, even at the ministerial level, adding that Algeria and Tunisia have at least 30% of women in parliament, and that Egypt introduced a 25% quota for women in local councils.
In the UAE, there are four female cabinet ministers; women comprise 20% of the national consultative council; and 20% of the diplomatic corps. Manar Al Hinai exemplifies the energy and drive of the country’s young national women. Not only has she founded and currently manages her own marketing and communications firm called Move Consultancy, she runs Anjaz, a free, public, speaker series designed to inspire local entrepreneurs. She also writes a regular column for The National newspaper.
What all of this means is that there are millions and millions of working women across the Arab world and Pakistan that are driving entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation. And that’s good news for economic development, because the more women in the workforce, the better it is for the economy.An International Monetary Fund report found that closing the gap in labor force participation could increase GDP by 15% to 35%. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that increased female workforce participation would add 5% to GDP in the United States. In Egypt, the impact on GDP would be 56% and in the UAE it would be 12%.
There is no doubt that more can be done — and is being done — to improve the educational, employment and political participation rates of women in Arab world and Pakistan. But as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s equally important to see how much progress there has been and how many women are succeeding today. After all the success of some can lead to the success of all.