Breaking the glass ceiling
Some say that encouraging diversity among entrepreneurs in decision-making positions is more than a positive business case.
by Lucia Conti
Amel Saidane is a Tunisian entrepreneur, an ecosystem builder, a digital transformation expert and an innovation activist. She is President of Tunisian Startups and co-founder of BetaCube, a venture builder in Fintech, Board member for the Digital Center of Excellence of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and Tunisia steering committee member for Digital Arabia Network, a member of the BMW Responsible Leaders Network, and a fellow of the BMW Ready-Go program.
In July 2020, Saidane took part in the conference Women in Industry and Innovation, organized by UNIDO, in cooperation with the Italian Government, UN Women and FAO.
One of your core values is encouraging girls and women to pursue tech careers. What is your story in the field?
I studied electrotechnical engineering in Hannover, Germany.
There were only three women in my studying year. I’ve seen that some countries in Europe, and maybe Europe in general, face a big challenge in terms of creating a pipeline for women in technology and this is wrong because it’s very important to have a women’s perspective in the digitalization that is shaping everything that we do today.
Can you give us an example?
If you look at the typical profile of a developer you’ll understand why Siri is designed the way it is. There is a study that was evaluating the responses of Siri and Alexa and how all the robots react to conversations and you can tell that they are actually designed by a male brain without a woman’s perspective. We need this diversity.
How would you define this diversity, when it comes to female entrepreneurs?
We are very good at multitasking. We tend to be judged by our male partners and counterparts, who usually think that we are fragmenting our energy or that maybe we should focus on one thing at a time. Everyone sees the world from their own perspective, maybe our male partners see it as a sequential set of tasks and this is the way they perform best. But there are other approaches.
Do you think that men and women tend to have different management styles?
I think that women tend to have the profile for a digital leader.
When we’re talking about digital transformation we’re talking about organizations that tend to be flatter, divided in smaller subgroups and working groups based on projects, so you might have a role in project A and a role in project B and rotate.
This will require a more flexible and less assertive type of communication.
And this is something that women leaders do intuitively.
And what factors explain the fact that women are still underrepresented in leading positions and top jobs?
This happens because women are still under-represented in policy-making. Currently, you can see many countries in Africa and New Zealand that are imposing a quota of 50% of female deputies in Parliament. This is actually essential to design policies for countries and make them more inclusive. At the same time, women are not equally represented in funding and investing. More than 95% of capital investment in the world is invested by men, in men.
And what about the Middle East and North Africa region, where you come from?
Comparing MENA countries to Europe, you will see that the problem is different. The pipeline is very interesting, you’ll find that more than 50% of university graduates in STEM fields and engineering are women and they are outperforming men in university studies. Unfortunately, we end up disappearing, because less than 5% of C level executives at tech companies are women.
The glass ceiling is very low, and, again, this is wrong, because having women in decision-making positions in entrepreneurship is a very positive business case. It’s not only about the beauty of having diversity or achieving a socially important goal. It’s not just a side factor.
What is your recommendation for female entrepreneurs who aspire to stand out in STEM fields?
My advice is: connect, connect with like-minded people, build your safe space and network, identify top women who can mentor and support you. Don’t stay alone, find peers.
You strongly believe that Middle Eastern and North African countries should think of digitalization as an opportunity to unite. Why?
If you look at the shift of powers in the world, you can realize that the countries with the largest platforms are able to control everything.
Just look at Google in Africa, with 1 billion users, or at Ali Baba aiming for its second billion users in the world very soon, and the Chinese credit scoring system.
The problem is, that as an Arab region we’re fragmented because of political issues, and also because we are challenged by weak economies, but there could still be potential for a purely digital collaboration.
If we unite efforts we could hold enough data to gain leverage on the capability to compete. Because right now we are not able to.
How are you promoting this idea?
I’m a board member of Digital Arabian Network, cofounded in Berlin by Bassant Helmi and Professor Ayad Al-Ani. We are trying to grow the network and map digital players in every country of the Middle East and North Africa region, so that we can have people coming on board and contributing to our initiative.
Which are the main difficulties in implementing such a project?
The first difficulty is that usually these platforms are started in the private sector. If we look for some examples we can consider the case of Souq.com, in the United Arab Emirates.
Souq is an e-commerce platform and one of the very rare “unicorns” in the region. It was big enough, theoretically, to have a lot of data on it, but then it was acquired by Amazon and swallowed. So all the data circulating on Souq.com is now property of Amazon and Amazon knows how Arab countries buy and behave and what they prefer online.
And what could possibly avoid that?
My answer is: how about we have our states build these types of platforms? Our states have enough power on their people, it’s not like in the US, where the government would hold back. Our states could build such platforms, while respecting data privacy rules, and make sure to allow many players of the private sector to operate them, and this would connect several countries in the region. I think this is the road that we should be experimenting on, otherwise we’ll just stay mere consumers of any technology that is produced in other countries.
You attended the UNIDO conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” in July 2020. Its tagline is “We Mean It,” and you supported the concept. Would you like to send a message to all the people who will be reading this interview?
Mean it, mean it every day! It’s not only for the sake of yourselves, it’s also for the safety of your countries, of your networks, of your peers. Having women on board and participating in the economy is a key for the wellbeing of everyone. If you want to be part of a project that’s bigger than yourself … mean it!