Women-led businesses have big potential. Still, they are not thriving


Women-led SMEs are more reliable in repaying loans compared to those led by men. Businesses with higher female representation in leadership positions are considered to predict better long-term value creation. More diverse managerial teams generate better financial performances. Moreover, venture capitals that fund women’s businesses are as likely as men-funded ones to succeed.

Still, today women entrepreneurs face many more obstacles in expanding their companies than male ones. Additionally, men tend to invest in other men, in a spiral that makes the environment for female-led businesses even grimmer. No matter the advantages and prospective outcomes.

Most of the limits that prevent the development of women’s companies are known. Being the same that keep inequalities alive, they span from gender bias and discrimination in accessing resources to financial funding differences and low female participation in the labour market.

The most significant entrepreneurial gap is registered globally in the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region, where women lead only 5% of businesses. Much beneath the already low world’s average, standing at around 23-26%. This area also records one of the weakest female employment rates. Moreover, not too surprisingly, it also accounts for among the world’s highest levels of disparity and prevents even the opportunity for women to succeed in finding the needed funding. Those seeking funding are overlooked and face a venture capital industry that is a crippling 92% male with all the consequences that follow.

This picture, which is not new, was the core of this year’s Women Business Forum (WBF), co-organized by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). In the light of its title, “Gender-Smart Financing to Unlock Women’s Entrepreneurial Potential in the MENA Region”, the event went a step further than the mere description of the known problems. It allowed the participants to explore and discuss practical ways to empower women as business owners, traders, workers and professionals, offering best practices and ideas that can work.

Challenges and biases

Being an entrepreneur is a challenge, even more so for women, especially in the Mediterranean region. Undoubtedly, because of the mentioned persisting gender biases and (no) access to finances and products. But also due to regulatory environment, laws in place, culture and social norms influencing the development of the enterprises. Moreover, such limits and challenges appear as missed opportunities on the investors’ and stakeholders’ sides. In the longer term, in the region, they can affect the development of a more equitable society and impact healthcare, education and general economic advancement.

In a world of increasing uncertainties and growing inequalities – they explain from the Forum – our bet should always be on eradicating discriminations and stereotypes to bridge the gender gap and unlock women’s entrepreneurial potential in the MENA region.” If properly fostered, such development can “boost productivity and increase economic diversification as well as income equality.” Considering these premises, the Forum held at the end of July represented the chance to discuss models and ways of disseminating them to let women entrepreneurs become the engine of change and, ultimately, to boost the needed advancements in MENA.

At the end of this year’s UfM Women Business Forum, all speakers agreed that a central role is played by the dialogue among regional and local stakeholders. They must step up their efforts towards a gender-responsive strategy to better support women entrepreneurs.

The 2022 Women Business Forum is the newest moment of the six-year-long conversation among women entrepreneurs and national and international business organizations from the Euro-Mediterranean region. This yearly regional platform offers women-owned and women-led businesses a unique opportunity to grow by learning from successful business models and building connections with different actors.

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