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The Influence of Gender Discrimination on Women Entrepreneurs in North Africa

By Hajar El Mouttaqui 



According to Chamlou, Klapper and Muzi (2008), “Women’s entrepreneurship is less common in the Middle East and North Africa than in other developing regions” (p. 1). One of the many reasons behind this is gender discrimination. It still presents a hindrance to North African women entrepreneurs, in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. In these countries, women are not considered as primary contributors to the economy even though they contribute significantly to the development of societies as primary caretakers of the family.Accordingly, the concept of entrepreneurship appeared in North Africa because it presented a solution and a chance for women to establish themselves in those patriarchal societies. The gender discrimination against these women entrepreneurs is due to multiple sociocultural, educational, legal, and institutional challenges that stop them from improving their lives and consolidating their status in society as leaders and not followers. However, North African women entrepreneurs have overcome all obstacles standing between them and their goals. Furthermore, their dedication to this cause has made them create more employment opportunities (“International Finance Corporation,” 2007). North African women entrepreneurs continue to successfully develop independent businesses to improve their lives in spite of the many cultural, educational and legal barriers facing them.

Background Information on Women’s Economic Contributions in North Africa

North African women’s role in the economy has always been underestimated and downgraded. It is mainly due to the misconception that limits their participation to agricultural activities only. However, in some countries, women have successfully refuted this idea through their participation in multiple non-agricultural activities. In order to further explore the limitations facing these women, three North African countries have been selected: Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. This selection is based on the available research conducted about the region, which mainly focuses on these three countries.

                        1- Morocco

A survey conducted in 1999 shows that more than 85% of Moroccan men will only accept their wives’ employment if it is temporary (World Bank, 2004, p. 111-112). Despite the strong male opposition, Moroccan women have succeeded at being part of the workforce. According to Sadiqi (2010), a senior professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies,"As of 2007, nearly 27% percent of women participated in the workforce" (p. 250). In fact, Moroccan women prefer to work in the private sector instead of the public one. Indeed, according to the World Bank report (2004), only seven percent of the female working force is in the public sector, which provided jobs that are “appropriate and acceptable for women” (p. 79). Jobs such as teaching and nursing are approved by society. However, thanks to the feminization of the private sector, Moroccan women have more access to jobs that were previously restricted. The World Bank Report (2004) states that this feminization would not have been possible without the developments of the textile industry and explains that 

In 1991, [the garment manufacturing] sector accounted for only 7.5 percent of nongovernmental paid employment, but over the decade, it grew faster than average while becoming more feminized; it accounted for 74 percent of the feminization that occurred in Morocco (p. 110).

To conclude, Moroccan women are actively contributing to the economy through their higher participation rate in the private sector compared to the public or governmental one.

                        2- Tunisia

Tunisia is another North African developing country where women face more problems than their male fellows. The Tunisian woman feels coerced into submitting to traditional norms where she has to put family first. This is why Salem (2010), a Tunisian sociologist and researcher,explains that "As a result, women who are strongly attached to their traditional domestic role suffer career setbacks, and those who concentrate on their career either utilize family and social support or rely on paid domestic help" (p. 391). Consequently, Tunisian women choose to stay single to focus on their businesses and work because husbands do not help with the housework or childcare, causing more stress and fatigue for the women. According to Drive and Grach (2012), women’s presence in senior positions is limited although they represent 27% of the workforce (p. 48). As for their participation in the economy, “Some 23.9 percent of the active female workforce is employed in the agricultural and fishing sector, 37.7 percent in the service industry, and 38.3 percent in manufacturing, mostly in the textile industry” (Ben Salem, 2010, p. 390). To conclude, Tunisian women’s participation in the economy is still limited to operational roles as they are not granted opportunities in senior positions.

                        3- Egypt

Women in Egypt are still underrepresented even when their participation in the labor force has increased. According to Tadros (2010), “Female unemployment figures have decreased since 2004” (p. 84).  However, the participation rate of women in the economy is still lower than average, especially of educated women. The World Bank (2013) explains that it is due to the participation rate of uneducated women, which is higher compared to educated ones (p. 65). On the other hand, the high level of economic growth in Egypt should be reflected on the level of women taking part in economic activities. However, that is not the case, which can only be explained through the type of activities and distribution of their participation in multiple fields (World Bank, 2013, p. 64). Accordingly, the idea of increasing economic growth levels to improve Egyptian women's participation in the economy can be easily refuted. Also, Egyptian women suffer from familial duties and responsibilities, like all women across the globe and especially in North Africa. As explained by Nasr (2010), the minister of investment and international cooperation in Egypt, "This situation is especially pronounced in parts of Egypt where there is a lack of good-quality social services, such as childcare centers. In this respect, “[cp1] Egyptian women's time constraints are similar to those of women elsewhere in the world" (p. 40). To sum up, Egypt has a high growth rate that should be accompanied by an increase in women's participation in the economy in order to eliminate the gender gap.

Factors Influencing Women’s Entrepreneurship in North Africa

The emergence of women’s role as business-owners in North Africa presented a cultural shock in their patriarchal societies. Women were subject to many factors hindering them from achieving independence in society. Hijab (2001) explains that those factors cannot be limited to one or two categories (p. 47). Accordingly, it is necessary to understand the factors influencing women entrepreneurship in the region, especially in such highly-gendered societies.

                    1-         Patriarchy

Patriarchy is an essential factor that undervalues women’s status in society. It is a social system where “men, or what is considered masculine, is accorded more importance than women, or what is considered feminine” (Facio, 2013, para. 4). In a patriarchal society, power rests with the eldest male in the family, which provides superior status to men and low status to women. The man is considered as the breadwinner, the decision maker, and the protector of the family. This ideology was taken out of its sociocultural context and embedded into the laws of many countries, especially in North Africa. A perfect example would be from the 115tharticle of the Moroccan Personal Status Code, or “Al-Moudawana,”,where women are presented as financially dependent individuals as it states, “Every human being is responsible for providing for his needs [nafaqa] through his own means, with the exception of wives, whose husbands provide for their needs” (World Bank, 2004, p. 124). Another aspect of sociocultural barriers is the concept of family. Women face a huge dilemma once they succeed at being part of the workforce or being entrepreneurs. That hard choice would be to either stop working in order to get married or have kids or to continue working and therefore defy social norms. In patriarchal societies, the family is considered “the primary building block of society” (World Bank, 2004, p. 94),which is why women’s roles in these societies are strictly limited to child-bearing and taking care of the family. Furthermore, “social Social norms seem to confine femalesto a more traditional path” (El Harbi, Anderson & Mansour, 2009, p. 51),which restricts their choice of jobs to certain careers that are considered acceptable by societal norms. In fact, Nadia Hijab (2001), a political analyst, author, and journalist,strongly affirms that “The struggles in Arab society over the construction of identities and heritage is tied to efforts to preserve the family and community” (p. 44).

This idea of family’s priority over work is highly supported and influenced by certain religious ideologies[cp2] . North Africa is a religiously rich environment that is home to many religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. With a majority Muslim population, most of the religious laws follow Islamic teachings that are sometimes misunderstood or taken out of context. [cp3] For instance, women are strictly restrained within the private sphere,which is their home and family, and they cannot be part of the public sphere that is dominated by men. Mernissi (1987), a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, argues that women are considered as aggressors if they participate in the masculine public sphere as it can be “both provocative and offensive” (as cited in Solati, 2017, p. 47). However, Islam gives women many strong economic rights and a perfect example would be through Khadija, the first wife of the prophet Mohammed, who was a wealthy, powerful,and well-known and respected entrepreneur (World Bank, 2007, p. vi). When it comes to Christianity, the only data available is from Egypt as Coptic Christians make 10% of its population (Tadros, 2010, p. 78). Since the majority of Egyptians are Muslims, the laws adopt the Islamic teachings “while most other faiths apply their own community’s religious standards” (Tadros, 2010, p. 79). Consequently, Christian women are subject to social and Islamic norms that put them at disadvantage.[cp4] Therefore, these hindering factors are more sociocultural than religious as they are based on subjective interpretations of religious teachings.  

                    2-         Educational Problems

“Education is a key element of the strategies to improve individuals' well-being and societies' economic and social development” (Roudi-Fahimi & Moghadam, 2006, p. 4). Roudi-Fahimi, a policy analyst, and Valentine M. Moghadam, the director of the women's studies program at Purdue University, acknowledge the tremendous improvement of access to education in North Africa (2006, p. 4), which helped in decreasing illiteracy rates in the region along with the literacy gender gap. For example, “Literacy Statistics” from UNESCO (2003) shows the decrease of the gender gap in literacy from a 35% gap in 1970 to an 8% gap in 2000 (as cited in Roudi-Fahimi & Moghadam, 2006, p. 10, Figure 6). However, illiteracy rates among girls and women are still high. For instance, UNESCO’s statistics show an illiteracy rate of 64% among Moroccan women of ages 15 and older while Egyptian women had a rate of 56% (as cited in Roudi-Fahimi & Moghadam, 2006, p. 9, Figure 4). According to Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (1998), Morocco’s illiteracy rate is the highest in the Muslim world because the government had not started supporting education for women until the 1960s (as cited in Gray & Finley-Hervey, 2005, p. 204).

On the other hand, women who had access to primary and secondary education are now pursuing higher education. To illustrate, “The proportion of women who have received a secondary or higher level of education rose from 22 percent in 1994 to 35 percent in 2004” (El Harbi, Anderson & Mansour, 2009, p. 48). Nevertheless, an increase in the unemployment rate is observed. The reason behind that is the quality of education. It should be improved in order to match the availability rate of education or to exceed it. According to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, educational systems fail to push students into thinking innovatively and critically analyzing information (as cited in Roudi-Fahimi & Moghadam, 2006, p. 10). Another reason is that the skills taught in school and even in universities are not enough to increase their chance of effectively participating in the economy (Karshenas, Moghadam, & Chamlou, 2016, p. 14). To sum up, many girls still do not have access to education while those who have it, do not necessarily benefit from it due to its ineffectiveness in teaching them leadership and innovation skills.

                    3-            Political and Institutional Implications

Although well-established in North Africa, women’s entrepreneurship has not reached its full potential. One of the reasons is the legal barriers, which are gendered laws that affect women-owned firms’ success compared to male-owned ones. These laws can be outside of business but still have effects on the gender-neutral business regulations and laws (Chamlou, Klapper & Muzi, 2008, p. 59). Another reason would be the complicated processes of starting a business venture. For instance, Egypt has tried to facilitate the registration process by reducing the costs and requirements but still ended up with a bad performance in tax payment, contract enforcement, and construction permits (Nasr, 2010, p. 25). Although the business environment is the same for both genders, women entrepreneurs still face some barriers and restrictions that are more binding then they are to men.

North African women entrepreneurs still need guidance and assistance. First, most of the challenges they face are related to their limited entrepreneurship skills and training. The study conducted by Welsh, Kaciak and Minialai (2017) showed that women entrepreneurs in Morocco gain more confidence about the success of their business if they have good management skills but still agree that they need to develop those skills and get training through multiple cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship programs (p. 24-25). Second, access to funds can have a major impact on these women-owned businesses. According to De Bruin, Brush, and Welter (2007), “[Women] entrepreneurs start with lower levels of overall capitalization and lower ratios of debt finance than their male counterparts” (as cited in Jamali, 2009, p. 234).  This funding issue is considered a huge setback that mostly faces women entrepreneurs, especially for start-ups. 

Women Entrepreneurs Defying Expectations

It is true that all the factors previously mentioned do affect the success of a business. However, some North African women entrepreneurs have continuously shocked the world with their success and stable growth defying all expectations. In fact, those factors motivate North African women entrepreneurs to reach an autonomous level thanks to “several entrepreneurial traits,”such as the experience of rejection from the societyas Gray and Finley-Hervey (2005, p. 208) have explained. Thus, these women entrepreneurs prove that cultural, educational, and legal barriers can be surpassed and should be eliminated to allow more women to start their own businesses. 

                        1-           Empowerment of Women Entrepreneurs

The main outcome of entrepreneurship is not only the financial profits, but, in fact, is the empowerment women get. It gives them a power and consolidates their presence as economic contributors and as decision-makers instead of a “dominated minority” (Gray & Finley-Hervey, 2005, p. 204). However, there are mixed expectations when it comes to women entrepreneurs. Some believe that they are doomed to fail and would not succeed at all because of the common ideology of them being incompetent and unequal to men. Another group thinks that these women will succeed but only to a certain extent because of the many factors hindering their growth. For example, Greene, Hart, Gatewood, Brush and Carter (2003) explain that “It should come as no surprise that women-owned businesses tend to be smaller, slower growing and less profitable than those owned by men” (as cited by Jamali, 2009, p.234). On the other hand, the last group trusts that these women entrepreneurs will succeed and defy all expectations thanks to their dedication and devotion. For example, “In Morocco… more than 65 percent of female business owners are also managers of their enterprises, debunking the myth that women are owners in name only” (Chamlou, Klapper, & Muzi, 2008, p. 12). However, even the successful women-owned firms in North Africa are still not on the same level as male-owned businesses.

North African women entrepreneurs do not only impact their lives, but also other women and even society. Their initiatives provide an example for other women to follow or be part of. Also, it challenges the sociocultural norms of society, which results in a push towards change and adaptation to the new situation.Some of the studies conducted have proved that women entrepreneurs in North African countries employ a high share of women and well-educated workers than male-owned firms. For instance, “Female-owned firms in Egypt and Morocco not only hire a higher proportion of female workers than do male-owned firms, but they also employ a higher share of female workers at professional and managerial levels” (Chamlou, Klapper & Muzi, 2008, p. 17). Therefore, they provide hope and empowerment for women pushing them to put all their energy into work in order to improve their lives. This is why “Governments, the private sector, donors, and nongovernmental organizations are promoting women’s economic empowerment in the Middle East, with women’s entrepreneurship a key tool” (Chamlou, Klapper & Muzi, 2008, p. 57).Consequently, with empowerment comes independence as a manifestation of social and financial stability that was usually provided by men.
                        2-            Examples of Successful North African Women Entrepreneurs

In spite of all obstacles and limitations, women entrepreneurs still succeed and prove that dedication is the key to achieving any goal. That is why it is necessary to provide examples of women who have defied all expectations and used the obstacles as a motivation tool to push themselves harder. For this part, two examples have been chosen from Kenneth R. Gray and Joycelyn Finley-Hervey’s (2005, p. 209) cases of Moroccan entrepreneurs as simple examples of how an idea of change can flourish into a promising future and business venture. These women, whose names have been altered for privacy reasons, have one thing in common, which is taking a negative situation from their life and using entrepreneurship as a solution for it.
                               a-            Fatima Derrabi

Fatima Derrabi is a 24 years old, single Moroccan entrepreneur who experienced difficult times finding a job in Morocco because almost no one understood or valued her profession and skills in the cosmetics field. Her relatives and friends in Morocco made fun of her as they considered all the money and time she spent in France to study were wasted. Fatima never lost hope and kept looking for opportunities like the one her friend suggested, which allowed her to work as “a freelance artist for his agency.” Since then, she has been working independently for agencies and magazines. Fatima believes that a high level of confidence along with the continuous search for opportunities are the key to success (Gray & Finley-Hervey, 2005, p. 210).

                                 b-           Yasmine El-Mehairy                                    

Yasmine El-Mehairy is an Egyptian entrepreneur and the founder of SuperMama, “The first online parenting community for mothers in the Arab World” (Curley, 2012). With a degree in computer science from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Yasmine got a job at IBM Egypt before receiving a scholarship to continue her postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom. After she came back to Egypt, Yasmine learned that her sister-in-law was pregnant. The lack of information about pregnancy and parenting targeting the Arab world pushed Yasmine along with one of her colleagues, Zeinab Samir, to launch the SuperMama website in 2010 (MBI Alumni Association, n.d., para. 4). Many experts joined the website’s team including

A software engineer, 8 researchers and writers who provide the content for the site, as well as… a pediatrician, nutritionist, an allergy and immunology doctor and a gynecologist, all of whom both write and review content for the site (Messiah, 2011, para. 7).

Yasmine El-Mehairy plans to expand her website, to start a new MBA degree that will allow her to improve her managerial and entrepreneurial skills, and “ … to participate more in shaping MENA’s 'startup' ecosystem” (MBI Alumni Association, n.d., para. 5).

                                 c-            Ameni Mansouri

Ameni Mansouri is a 29-year-old Tunisian who worked as a consultant in pharmaceutical laboratories. She was used to selling clothes she did not need on Facebook groups before she got the idea of starting an online store where people could buy and sell second-hand clothes (Rahal, 2017, para. 4). In 2016, Ameni Mansouri,along with Oussama Mahjoub and Ghazi Ketata, founded Dabchy, which “ … helps sellers make money by selling new, self-made, pre-owned or unused clothes and accessories…Buyers, on the other hand, get to buy these products at discounted rates” (Paracha, 2017, para. 2). Due to its success in Tunisia, Dabchy expanded to Morocco and Algeria and is now “ … used by 220,000 women in North Africa” (Paracha, 2017, para. 1). Mansouri is very optimistic about the future as she aims to expand the website to other Middle Eastern countries and to “ … ensure stable jobs for her employees” (Enpact, 2018, para. 12). 


Women’s entrepreneurship in North Africa is considered an effective way to further increase the growth of the economy. It is crucial to eliminate all hindering factors that restrict these women entrepreneurs from reaching their goals, in order to provide a healthy environment for them to actively participate in the financial activities. In addition, gender discrimination does not only affect women, it affects the whole society as it can negatively affect the social atmosphere “ … to the detriment of development prospects” (World Bank, 2007, p. 18). Yet, some women have triumphantly overcome all obstacles and have achieved their goals of growing their business and providing employment opportunities to other struggling women. That is why women entrepreneurship in North Africa is essential and it should be encouraged and supported to ensure its effectiveness. More importantly, many solutions have been presented to provide women entrepreneurs with the help and environment necessary to their success. For example, women business organizations can offer business training along with “external support networks” (“International Finance Corporation,” 2007, p. 10). Also, legal barriers can be eliminated through the inclusion of women in policymaking in addition to the simplification of the business registration process. To conclude, there is still a need for more research concerning women entrepreneurs in North Africa since most of the research studies focus on western areas or the Middle East.




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