Saudi Women under-represented in the Entrepreneurial Sector

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Saudi women’s entrepreneurship is still very much in the shadows of the Saudi economy according to a study released by WEI and Ashridge Business School
Saudi women’s entrepreneurship is still very much in the shadows of the Saudi economy according to a study released by WEI and Ashridge Business School

Women’s Entrepreneuship Initiative (WEI) in collaboration with the Ashridge Business School recently launched a report highlighting the growing need of a limited number of Saudi women to be fully represented in the entrepreneurial sector. As proposed by the report, in the attempts to inculcate such change across the Kingdom, regulatory, educational and socio-cultural changes are urgently needed to promote women’s entrepreneurship.

The report titled, ‘Giving voice to women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia’ acknowledges the remarkable advancement of Saudi women over the last few decades. However, as the report clearly explains, “they (women) remain constrained at large in their ability to translate this (positive attributes) into tangible entrepreneurial success.”

According to the research findings, there are certain competencies that Saudi women lack, which contribute to their inability to become successful within the entrepreneurial sector.

Key findings indicate that Saudi women entrepreneurs can present themselves as confident but often suffer from an underlying lack of self-belief evidenced by hesitation in decision making, avoidance of commitment and a strong fear of judgment and failure. Further, female entrepreneurs show courage in following their chosen career path, but are averse to assuming tangible risks e.g. leaving the security and status of government jobs or seeking external funding for their businesses. The results of the survey also indicate a lack of self-reliance, self-sufficiency and personal initiative, often resulting from social restrictions imposed upon women.

This can be internalised to such an extent that women become complacent, if not complicit, in their situation.  The women interviewed experienced powerful emotional reactions to the gender-specific challenges they face. They express feelings of frustration, outrage, helplessness and/or self-blame at their lack of autonomy. They also have a powerful fear of judgment and failure.

“Any procedures designed to address the exclusion of women from the Saudi Arabian economy must address the socio-political and cultural factors that suppress female entrepreneurial spirit and capabilities.” — Dr. Hessah Al Sheikh, Co-Founding Director, Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative

Besides quoting personality traits that may be inhibiting women’s entrepreneurial success in Saudi Arabia, the report also addresses current obstacles in business licensing regulations which discourage such growth. Where there is a restricted access to government services, women cannot fully participate in the business sector. Recently established ‘Ladies Sections’ within government offices are perceived as ineffective, women entrepreneurs often prefer to rely on a male relative to help them.

Also, women continue to encounter a Wakeel (legal male representative) requirement when starting their businesses, as the enforcement of its removal is not consistent. Secondly there is a legal requirement for a ‘Mudeer’ (male manager) for public-facing business. Despite its official repeal, many women are still required to appoint a male manager.

Further, owing to restricted licensing options, a number of business activities that are popular among women, for example, home business, are not currently available in the official licensing categories. The driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia and the need for male guardian permission for international travel put women entrepreneurs at a significant disadvantage.

In addition, a lack of infrastructure and support services are unable to cater to the growing demands of working women.

“Many of the women’s struggles identified by this work, specifically reflect their position in Saudi Arabian society. If greater entrepreneurial participation of women is desired, Saudi culture will need to adapt to help them develop the personal skills and qualities needed.” — Dr. Gill Coleman, Ashridge Business School

The researchers, therefore, make a number of recommendations to help women overcome some of the barriers and empower them to play their part to drive positive change:

  1. Review and reform women’s education to increase their economic participation. Ensure greater focus on fostering entrepreneurship competencies, skills and qualities.
  2. Create opportunities for women entrepreneurs to support each other through networking events, workshops and change programmes.
  3. Address gender-specific challenges in the regulatory environment to improve women’s access to government business licensing services e.g. create a home-business license, and ensure enforcement of positive women-targeted policies.
  4. Improve women-targeted entrepreneurship initiatives and funding sources. Establish a central information and advisory service, and provide training support.
  5. Invest in support services and infrastructure, such as public-funded transportation services for women and subsidised childcare.
  6. Promote awareness of the positive economic role and contribution of Saudi businesswomen.

“One of the distinctive features of this work is its positive impact on many of the women who participated. The strength of their responses has been the driver to establish the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) across the Middle East and North Africa region to learn, serve and enable change. Now, more than ever, the world needs to unleash women’s entrepreneurship to further strengthen economies and societies.” — Kelly Lavelle, Founding Director, Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, and report co-authour

The research findings are a result of an action-based study of 37 aspiring and established Saudi women entrepreneurs whose real life accounts were recorded via in-depth interviews and through engagement in a series of workshops.

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