Kristie Wang

A Woman’s World – Virtual Offices and Gender Gyms: A new Ashoka Changemakers/GE competition focuses on female business gains in MENA

Today, social innovation is pioneering a new reality for women across the Middle East and North Africa, from Turkey to Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

More than 60 percent of women in Saudi Arabia achieve higher education – yet only 17 percent of these women are employed, compared to 75 percent of their male colleagues.

“Sixty percent of [Saudi] women with PhDs are currently unemployed. This is a staggering statistic,” says Khalid AlKhudair, chief executive of Glowork, an organization that has created a women-only website for accessing job opportunities. Khalid is a fellow with Ashoka, an organization that supports social entrepreneurs worldwide.

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only 25 percent of women participate in the workforce – half the rate of the global average, according to a recent World Bank report. In Turkey, which is sometimes included as part of the MENA region, only 23.5 percent of women are employed.

Untapped Potential of the Virtual Office

Organizations like Glowork and some MENA governments are working to realize the untapped potential of women through a variety of innovations and initiatives. In addition to matching women job-seekers with employers, Glowork has pioneered a “virtual office solution” that makes it possible for women to telecommute from home, and for companies that hire them to easily monitor their work.

Further, businesses are often disincentivized from hiring women because they must bear the cost of complying with gender segregation laws: separate offices, facilities, and guards must be provided. Restrictions to travel such as a ban on driving for women in Saudi Arabia also pose further barriers.

But a virtual office for women provides a possible pathway for women to hold jobs despite these constraints.

Leveraging Online Mobility

There are other initiatives in MENA that are also leveraging technology in order to remove limitations on women’s mobility, so that they can more easily connect with employers. Souktel, in Egypt, has developed an SMS-based job search platform that is customized for use by women.

“Traditional families often don’t allow women to search for jobs in person, and Internet cafés are usually dominated by men, leaving female job-seekers with few resources for finding work,” says Lana Hijazi, founder of Souktel. But through Souktel and any mobile phone, job seekers can create “mini-CVs” as text messages that include basic data about their skills and location. Employers also upload mini-job ads to the Souktel database, enabling job seekers to search for opportunities from their own phones.

Women, especially those in rural areas or within concentrated urban communities, can also be unaware of their own entrepreneurial potential. To help women connect with role models and access entrepreneurial information, social innovators are creating hands-on learning opportunities that enable women to build business skills, tap into networks, and strengthen their self-confidence.

For example, Ashoka Fellow Bedriye Hulya founded b-Fit, a franchise of women-only gyms in Turkey that are owned and staffed exclusively by women. According to b-Fit, women in Turkey – especially women who are married and have children – face strong societal pressures not to work.

Further, most private spaces for exercise consist of football fields and bodybuilding salons dominated by men, and public parks are either unsafe or not socially acceptable spaces for women to exercise. b-Fit combines sports and entrepreneurship in a way that challenges traditional gender norms and advances women’s economic equity.

Not only do b-Fit centers offer a space for women to boost their fitness and play sports; they also provide workshops on entrepreneurship, leadership, communication, nutrition, and health. Furthermore, the franchises can only be bought by women. b-Fit also offers interest-free financing to women having difficulty accessing capital.

Many franchisees have only a basic education and no prior work experience, but once a franchisee joins b-Fit, she receives continual business training and support, including counseling on managing her finances and investing in her future. Eventually, Hulya hopes that empowering more women to become successful business owners will inspire other women to pursue professional opportunities as well.

“If [a franchisee] is able to change her life, she has the potential to change other women’s lives as well,” Hulya says. “That’s what makes her powerful.”

Community Organizing for Women by Women

There are other social innovators in MENA who are bringing women together by organizing groups for, and run by, women with common economic goals. For example, Sakhrah Women’s Society in Jordan is the region’s first union established for women farmers that helps poor women farmers form cooperatives, enabling them to work together on income-generating projects like harvesting vegetables, processing grains, dairy production, or needlework.

“Women in the Arab world are mostly excluded from decision-making processes at all levels, from the household to the government,” says Zeinab Al-Momani, founder of Sakhrah Women’s Society. “Even though women contribute to household income, they are rarely consulted on issues such as loan and credit applications, management, or on other financial matters.”

The cooperatives create a space where women can engage in decision-making and empower themselves by sharing information and working together. The women can also access group loans.

By managing their own projects and financial matters, the women gain skills that transfer into life outside the cooperative. Skills in teamwork, communication, strategic planning, and governance empower the women to become active problem-solvers and see opportunities where they can help their families and communities.

Social innovators in MENA are pioneering a wealth of other strategies. Each country presents a unique context, and set of challenges and opportunities. For instance, Nawal Fakhri from Lebanon has founded a taxi agency, which is operated by women and serves women customers only. Other countries like Iran, Egypt and Kuwait have already copied the idea.

Up for the Challenge?

To learn more about the latest innovations in this area, visit the of Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region website, an online competition by Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric, calling for initiatives that enable women in MENA to achieve economic equality, strengthen their families and communities, and benefit equitably from economic growth.

Liked the innovations you saw above? Get a more in-depth perspective on these and other social innovations that are turning challenges into opportunities that spark hope for a better future in the Women Powering Work report.

Or are you an innovator who gives women across MENA access to economic opportunities? Then apply to the competition today. Three winners will each receive $25,000 and connect with a community that includes like-minded innovators, impact partners, sector experts, and potential investors.

Please visit the Guidelines, Criteria & Prizes page before the Nov. 6, 2013 competition deadline for more information about how to enter or nominate a contestant.

Follow the #womenWork hashtag on Twitter to follow trends about women’s economic equality in MENA!

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the 12th Issue of Digital Development Debates on “Power.”