2019: Women in Business

From Saudi Arabia to Ecuador

Despite unprecedented participation by women in the world of business, obstacles remain in emerging markets.

It is a fact that gender, much like race, is a weak predictor of performance in almost any area of importance.

The end of a male-dominated history is, among other things, manifested in the growing involvement of women in business—an area which was traditionally the preserve of men in the West and East alike.

A study carried out by Aston Business School in Birmingham in 2016 found out that the number of women venturing into the world of business had risen by 45% over the three-year period between 2013 and 2016 in the UK, compared with a decade earlier.

The UK is not the only front. The number of businesswomen has spiked over the last decade almost everywhere in the world.

Nevertheless, with the number of female CEOs in charge of A-rated companies hovering at 5-10%, there is still a long way ahead of women to achieve true equality.

What truly matters, however, is that a historical obstacle has been shattered, and so will any remaining glass ceilings.

In a strange twist of fate, the same factor—that is, participation or lack thereof in production and trade—which once pushed women into a secondary status, is now helping them regain their rights.

Although the strong presence of women in the world of business arguably started in the West, it is now becoming the norm everywhere, including in emerging markets.

Indeed, Ecuador seems to have the highest participation of women in entrepreneurial enterprises in the world (31%), according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM).

But, it is still too early to celebrate gender equality in business.

In the Middle East, in particular, women have also been held back by the prevailing tradition of patriarchy, though things have been slightly better for women in places where the mentality of modernization has a stronger foothold, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Lebanon—and to a lesser degree—Iran and Egypt.

The GCC region, too, has seen a great change of attitude toward women’s presence in public arenas. To pick a name at random, Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi has been serving as the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development since 2017 after a successful career in business.

Over her career as a businesswoman, she was dubbed one of “100 most powerful Arab Women” by the Arabian Business magazine and one of “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine.

Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative states in the Islamic world, has just appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as the country’s first female ambassador.

In an interview with CNN as the new Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar pointed out that her country’s reforms to give more freedom to women are, in part, driven by economic considerations, adding “you cannot have 50% of your community not participating.”

There is no denying that Princess Reema bint Bandar’s appointment and her progressive views are promising signs. Such women of high standing, alas, are only a minority; most women active in the developing world are ordinary women who are trying hard against all odds to stand on their own feet by launching their own small businesses.

In Iran, for instance, women are increasingly using social media platforms such as Instagram to launch their small clothes, handicrafts, and jewelry businesses, using the on-demand manufacture model.

There is nothing wrong with women showing a knack for entrepreneurship or making a living by setting up their own businesses. However, we must also remember that as Jane Kirkpatrick once observed, “society has never barred women from bread-winning roles, but only from economic roles that are profitable and respectable.”

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