Ask someone to picture the top destination for women business leaders across the globe, and the Middle East might not be the first thing to come to mind. Yet, in reality, the region is leading the way forward on women entrepreneurship: one in three start-ups in the Arab world founded or led by women, far more than in Silicon Valley.
For the past ten years, one conference has been at the forefront of the effort to bring more women into the business world. Since its founding in 2009 by Sophie Le Ray, the Global WIL Economic Forum has served as the top event in the region to convene senior female leaders, bring more women into business, and drive greater racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity across the board.
Studies back up Le Ray’s belief in the power of diversity. The consulting giant McKinsey estimates that closing the gender gap in the labor market could add anywhere from $12 trillion to $28 trillion to the global economy over a decade, and could bring in $2.7 trillion to the Middle East’s economy alone.
The WIL Forum prides itself on being an ideas incubator, hosting panels that tackle an ambitious range of economic issues that impact women such as modernizing the education system, bringing more women into media, and closing the gender gap in tech. The forum brings in renowned speakers from across the globe, including H.E. Sultan Bin Saeed AlMansoori, Peter Fisk of GeniusWorks, Ines Ligron, National Director, Miss World Singapore Organization, Sylvia Metayer of Sodexo, Ariel Wengroff of VICELAND, and Beth Doane of the branding firm Main & Rose.
The WIL Forum has helped drive impressive progress for gender inclusion, but serious barriers, particularly in the Middle East, remain. Chief among those barriers is the gap between education and employment: the Gulf countries boast some of the highest rates of women STEM graduates in the world, yet also have some of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce.
Le Ray explains, “Cultural, social norms and sometimes simply lack of awareness still prevent women from rising to senior positions in organizations. We need to help businesses to support these women from entry-level through to leadership, eliminate workplace bias and unequal pay, through improving our legal framework, promoting parity as a growth driver, and encouraging more female sponsors and mentors in our businesses.”
The Global WIL Forum is also focused on access to funding, which remains a key barrier for women entrepreneurs. Today, female-led start-ups receive nearly a quarter less money than male-run firms and are 30% less likely to result in a positive exit.
Studies suggest that bringing more women into executive and management positions could help fix this: VC firms with one or more female partners are twice as likely to invest in a start-up which has women in the management team, and three times more likely to invest in a company with a female CEO. Similarly, female-owned businesses tend to hire more women than their male counterparts and tend to employ a higher percentage of women in managerial roles, which further helps bring more women into the pipeline.
“We still have so far to go, not only in the MENA region but across the world,” said Sophie Le Ray. “I am very optimistic because I see tens of thousands of like-minded business leaders prove their commitment to making progress every day. That’s the power of the WIL Forum: leveraging the potential and passion of people committed to changing the world for the better.”