Entrepreneurship is coloured by gender roles and expectations and brings other inequalities between genders to the forefront. In the MENA region, those running businesses that employ workers, a sign of successful entrepreneurship, are mostly men. Meanwhile, women are often employed as contributing family workers. Rather than from entrepreneurial aspirations, self-employment among women is often driven by poverty and the need for income. This applies particularly to young women, who perceive self-employment primarily as a necessity due to the lack of other economic opportunities. In Egypt, for example, nearly 64% of self-employed youth report that the main reason for them becoming self-employed is a lack of other opportunities.
Woman run businesses tend to be concentrated in agriculture, handicrafts and the provision of minor services. These goods and services are considered non-innovative, that is, they do not involve new technologies or solutions, which is often the basis of company growth. Furthermore, these sectors provide predominantly poorly paid and informal work. Many female entrepreneurs decide to work from their homes because it offers a high degree of flexibility, compatible with social norms and family duties. However, such small-scale businesses are highly vulnerable work domains, seldom covered by social security systems and labour laws.
So far, we have already covered two distinctions in entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship out of necessity vs. out of opportunity, and non-innovative vs. innovative entrepreneurship. Many self-employed women in MENA fit into the former categories, necessity entrepreneurs whose employment and businesses are characterized by high levels of informality, vulnerability and working poverty, and who provide non-innovative goods. Entrepreneurs out of opportunity, however, tend to run established small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are looking to grow. There is little crossover between these two groups. Few microenterprises will ever grow to become SMEs.
Whether driven by necessity or opportunity, women in MENA face numerous structural barriers to entrepreneurship. First and foremost, this includes a gender-discriminatory environment that is shaped by social norms, attitudes and laws. Second, they must contend with the difficulties in securing access to relevant skills, knowledge, markets and networks. Finally, there is a lack of appropriate financial and business development services for women. Many of these barriers are applicable to women around the world.