It is time to transform the status quo for working women in the GCC through innovative and entrepreneurial solutions.

It’s clear that globally, women face a host of challenges to full economic participation. It is the year 2014 and less than half of working-age women worldwide are employed, and those who are end up being paid less on average than men for the same work with fewer chances of rising to the highest ranks of a Fortune 500 company. ”Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world – the numbers tell the story quite clearly,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her 2010 TEDx Talk.1

This rings especially true in the Arab World’s Gulf States (known collectively as the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC), where in many countries women represent a more educated talent pool than the rest of the population based on university graduation rates.2 While overall unemployment and underemployment in the region is high, GCC women are disproportionately affected when compared to their male counterparts.3 Women and men in the UK or Singapore, for example, deal with similar (if not identical) unemployment rates. But in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, women are more than three times as likely as men to be unemployed.

This is a huge loss given that investing in women’s employment offers a multiplier effect for society: better health and education outcomes, societal resilience, reinvestment in communities, and national prosperity. From a sheer economic standpoint, closing the gaps in women’s economic participation would offer the region an opportunity for increased economic growth,4 filling the needs of a growing labor force, which will rise by 70 percent over the next few decades, according to the World Bank’s most recent projections.5

While governments across the GCC have tried (or are starting to try) to address this challenge facing half of the Arab population, the complexity of the problem requires a re-examination of the entire societal ecosystem, from structural issues within the private sector to cultural norms that impact individual choices.

”Oftentimes, we look [at] our problems in the region in isolation of other sectors, not recognizing that the public sector, corporations, and individual entrepreneurs need to work together to create real systems change,” says Hazami Barmada, founder of Al-Mubadarah Arab Empowerment, a global convening organization dedicated to fostering discussion among youth and the diaspora in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The truth is that one sector cannot solve the challenge alone. Barmada cites the example of private–public partnerships: private sector entrepreneurs can only push so far without bumping heads with the government, which controls much of infrastructure building.

A similar argument rings true for a societal mindset shift. ”While gender discrimination laws can offer legislative protection, they can’t alone transform a company’s internal culture, which stems from both executive leadership and individual employees,” says Barmada.

Nevertheless, leading social entrepreneurs, individuals who are challenging the status quo through innovative and entrepreneurial solutions, are finding leverage points to connect sectors and create sustainable outcomes for women in the GCC. Outcomes that not only help women enter the workforce, but ensure that they have equal access to rising to the top of any sector.

The Breadth of Challenges Faced by GCC Women

Cultural and societal barriers

Cultural challenges are one of the most commonly cited reasons for why there are so few women entering the workforce.6 For many women in the Gulf region, work and employment are deeply entrenched in the social process of what is acceptable and what is not. According to Barmada, if you work, it generally signifies that you have to work. ”In the Gulf States, women keep themselves busy socially,” said Barmada, ”work is not the same expected norm as it is in the Western world, because it’s perceived as a community.”


Ra’ed Qutena
Aseel al-Awadhi was one of the first four female lawmakers ever elected to Kuwait’s parliament (2009).

One viewpoint is that the socialization of work can be traced back to a young age, argues Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Associate Professor in Literary Theory and Women’s Studies at the American University of Sharjah in a CNN issue of ”Inside the Middle East.”7

Girls and boys continue to be socialized very differently with different expectations. Boys have more personal freedoms to go outside the home, whereas girls continue to be socialized within the home. Therefore, for many girls, school is their only opportunity to make friends and socialize outside the family, so it is something they look forward to.

This pattern continues at university. Girls tend to be brought up to be wives and mothers, and the majority of girls in the United Arab Emirates marry straight after graduation. So university is something they look forward to as their last few years of freedom before they are restricted by family life.

For the women who do choose to work, the societal ecosystem is not always supportive. Looking at Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, where women are highly educated,8 the logistical challenges associated with being part of the workforce are immense. ”You can’t drive yourself to work unless you’re wealthy enough to have a driver, and even if your company is open and liberal, other people may not accept working with you as a woman,” said Leena Al Olaimy, the co-founder of 3BL ‘Triple Bottom Line’ Associates, Bahrain’s first social impact and sustainability consultancy. ”There also tends to be an aversion among males to being supervised by women.”

Challenging regional job markets

Beyond the cultural and societal challenges that women face, the region itself faces a broader issue: unemployment. ”These are young economies, 50 to 60 years old, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to have it all figured out, as they’re just starting to develop their infrastructure,” said Moniza Khokhar, the founder of Elan Magazine, an online magazine that highlights positive trends in the Middle East and South Asian communities. Khokhar emphasizes that when there are so few jobs in the Gulf countries, employers tend to prioritize hiring and investing in men, who are already seen by society as the natural providers. In that regard, it’s both culture and economics.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the lack of jobs but the lack of jobs that women are willing to take. ”There is an assumption that women are willing to accept any job, when in reality, there is still a lot of social stigma about what positions are acceptable in some networks, bringing it back to challenge of socio-economics and social status. I don’t think there’s a grand equation to it—many women don’t strive to the top, because they simply don’t want to,” said Barmada.

Finally, networks play a big role in the hiring process, especially the Wasta system,9 which emphasizes recruitment based on relations (e.g. ties to the Royal Family and the father running oil exports). ”There is a lack of a meritocracy in the Middle East, where jobs are given as a favor as opposed to merit-based qualifications,” said Barmada. And when it comes down to it, women tend to lose out.

Moving Forward: Solutions and Lessons

The systemic barriers facing women in the GCC may seem daunting, but social innovators and entrepreneurs are shifting and challenging social norms to develop creative frameworks that give women equal and better access to employment opportunities. For example, Glowork, founded by Ashoka Fellow Khalid Alkhudair, has overcome obstacles to women’s employment within Saudi Arabia, where women represent an estimated 1.2 million of the 1.6 million unemployed in the nation and face logistical challenges ranging from driving restrictions or a lack of antidiscrimination laws.10,11

Glowork, as an online job portal, links women job seekers to the companies that are seeking to hire them, creating new job positions and giving rural populations opportunities remotely. Thus far, Glowork has built a database of over one million unemployed women and created over 6,000 job vacancies through private and public sector partnerships.

”This is a time of change and there’s a market for female employment,” said Alkhudair in a recent Forbes article. ”In the next three years, there will be a big fight in the Kingdom for female employment.12

Glowork is just one example of how social entrepreneurs are driving the economic equality of women across the GCC in unconventional and disruptive ways. Three innovation trends are gaining momentum across the GCC:


When it comes to women entrepreneurs, the Middle East beats Silicon Valley. One third of all startups in the Middle East are being founded by women—compared to a dismal 16 percent in Silicon Valley.13

”Entrepreneurship and innovation have opened up the playing field in a way that has empowered people across the board—women, youth, and other groups who didn’t think they could break into the workplace,” Barmada said. ”[As an entrepreneur], you can work at your own pace, without cultural restrictions, and you are valued for your product and not for your gender or your age.”


Alberto Novi
Investing in women’s employment offers a multiplier effect for society: better health and education outcomes, societal resilience, reinvestment in communities, and national prosperity.

Other entrepreneurs, like Moniza Khokhar, believe that the increasing number of women business owners can also have an offshoot effect in changing societal attitudes about what women can and cannot do. ”Entrepreneurship breaks down gender barriers,” Khokhar said. ”If you’re leading a project, the focus is on what service or product you provide to the market—as opposed to whether you’re a man or a woman.”

A number of social innovators in the region are already leveraging this trend. In Qatar, the Roudha Center for Technology and Entrepreneurship is trying to increase the number of women who strive for and succeed in entrepreneurial career paths. ”In Qatar, 62% of interest in entrepreneurship came from males and just 38% from females,” writes Shareefa Fadhel,14 the Managing Director at Roudha Center.” Qatar has a large number of ambitious, talented, and well-educated women, but they face many unique challenges when pursuing entrepreneurial projects.”

To correct the imbalance, Roudha Center provides a variety of services for women at various stages of their ventures, including business role models, skills development specific to the SME market, innovative thinking, and financial/legal support.

Despite a growing number of women entrepreneurs, accessing capital can still be difficult in the GCC, says Barmada. ”Right now, the region does not have a solid angel investment network and it’s very difficult to get seed funding. Investment is either happening at a high tech level or a microfinance level—the middle is still missing.” Khokhar agrees: ”I see lack of financing as one of the most critical barriers to fostering entrepreneurship in the region, especially access to first-round funding for startups.”

The recently formed Women’s Angel Investor Network (WAIN) is the first all-women angel investor group in the Middle East that provides financial support and mentorship for women entrepreneurs. Started in the UAE, WAIN is beginning foster leadership and networks on both sides of the equation: for future investors and entrepreneurs.

The growth in entrepreneurship across the GCC region is undeniable. The influence of women business owners may also eventually affect corporate culture. What has innovation done to the region’s private sector? Barmada’s answer is clear: ”Corporations can no longer ignore the talents of women, because they continue to lose talent to startups and innovative initiatives that will eventually fund themselves.”


Technology remains a relatively untapped resource for women, but social innovators are starting to change that. Overall, the GCC has the highest number of Internet users in the MENA region with some countries, like the UAE,15 reaching a penetration of 75 percent—comparable to that of Europe at 73 percent. While not much data has been available on women’s Internet usage in the overall GCC, about 40 percent of women in the UAE have access to the Internet.16 Moreover, both men and women have nearly equal rates of Facebook usage, while women tend to be more active on social networking sites using their mobile phones.

Organizations like Nabbesh and Glowork are utilizing the growth in ICT to reinvent the job market for women. As a skill- and project-based virtual market, Nabbesh gives women an opportunity to find flexible and fulfilling work opportunities that can be completed from the comfort of one’s home. ”By giving women flexibility in the private sector, Emirati women can contribute more to the UAE’s growing economy in a way that is consistent with the UAE’s culture and family values,” writes Loulou Khazen Baz,17 Nabbesh’s founder.

A key part of the organization’s success is meeting the uniqueness of the local context by customizing services and partnerships with local companies. Jobs are always being posted, a rating system ensures both company and employee quality, and payments are delivered in a secure manner. However, progress for women means more than just becoming better served as consumers of technology, it means turning women intro creators of technology.

The Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF) is filling both the technology and women’s employment gap by training the next generation of ICT entrepreneurs. While there is a high rate of women graduating with ICT degrees,18 few can find employment opportunities, as both the delayed growth in ICT and cultural challenges hinder their participation.19

Through the Khadija Program, YLDF is filling the gaps that still exist by giving women access to capacity training,20 financial incubation, and shared experiences that can aid them in starting their own enterprises. Moreover, by partnering with civil society organizations, the program promotes the adoption of ICT and products at the community level and encourages NGOs to enhance their performance.

Recently, Hazami Barmada launched the first ever MENA+ Social Good Summit in October 2013 to host a broad range of online and offline conversations around entrepreneurship and innovation trends in the MENA region. It was an opportunity to highlight and celebrate female role models from the GCC and beyond, including Muna Abu Salayman, Rama and Nawar Chakaki, and many others. ”It was clear that people are hungry for constructive and positive news,” said Barmada, ”They are tired of hearing about what they cannot do.”

Women are joining the conversation and the job market, and technology has become the mirror that reflects this changing paradigm.

Getting to the top

The cost of women in the GCC not entering the job market is more than just the exclusion of 50 percent of the population: it reflects the economic cost and untapped potential of some of the GCC’s best and brightest.


Charles Roffey
In the MENA region, while both men and women have nearly equal rates of Facebook usage, women tend to be more active on social networking sites using their mobile phones.

As the region’s labor force increases over the next decade, the participation of women as contributors to the workforce is imperative for the economic well-being of each individual country. And a quick glance at the most recent list of the ”100 Most Powerful Women in the Arab World” tells us that rapid progress is being made. However, as outlined above, the complexity of the obstacles faced by GCC women calls for innovative solutions that leverage the burgeoning positive trends across the region (and globally), namely the growth of technology and the rise of entrepreneurship.

As social innovators start to tap into these trends, they themselves need support. This is why in August 2013, Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric launched an online competition entitled ”Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in MENA” to bring to the surface and support innovations that enable the full economic participation of women. A concerted effort needs to be made by governments, corporations, and NGOs to support the kinds of challenges that transform the status quo.


Why we have too few women leaders. TEDWomen [online] (2010).

Ramez Shehadi, Dr. Leila Hoteit, Dr. Kamal Tarazi, and Abdulkader Lamaa, “Educated, Ambitious, Essential: Women Will Drive the GCC’s Future,” Booz & Company [online] (2011).

Richard Shediac and Hatem Samman, “Meeting the Employment Challenge in the GCC: The Need for a Holistic Strategy,” Booz & Company [online] (2010).

Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains From Gender Equity, International Monetary Fund [online] (2013).

Shaping the Future, Ch. 4 Migration in the Long Term: The Outlook for the Next Generations, World Bank [online] (2010).

Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, World Bank [online].

Catriona Davies, “Mideast women beat men in education, lose out at work,” CNN [online] (2012).

Ramez Shehadi, Dr. Leila Hoteit, Dr. Kamal Tarazi, and Abdulkader Lamaa, “Educated, Ambitious, Essential: Women Will Drive the GCC’s Future,” Booz & Company [online] (2011).

Abu Muhammed, “Disaster: ‘Wasta’ Undermines Saudi Education System,” Mideast Posts [online] (2012).

Ian Black, “Saudi Arabia’s women hold day of action to change driving laws,” The Guardian (2013)

Kevin Sullivan, “Saudi Arabia struggles to employ its most-educated women,” The Washington Post [online] (2012).

Natalie Robehmed, “Saudi Startup Finding Women Jobs Acquired For $16M,” [online] (2013).

“The Middle East beats the West in female tech founders,” The Economist [online] (2013).

Roudha Center, [online].

Victoria Zagorsky, “Research in the Gulf,” RW Connect [online] (2013).

Keach Hagey, “UAE top for female internet use in GCC,” The National [online] (2009).

Nabbesh, [online] .

Hyacinth Mascarenhas, “Youth Leadership Development Foundation: Broadening horizons for ICT graduates and women in Yemen,” Elan Magazine [online] (2014).

“Finding Room for Positive Change and Growth in Yemen,” Knowledge@Wharton [online] (2013).

Khadija Program, [online].


Marzena Zukowska

Marzena Zukowska currently leads and manages the media strategy for Ashoka Changemakers. Her background as an undocumented Polish immigrant has resulted in a deeply rooted passion for social justice and...

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