Dissolving gender barriers in tech

Womenpreneur Initiative, an organization with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, aims to help women advance in technology and innovation.

by Lucia Conti


Sana Afouaiz is an award-winning gender expert, women’s advocate, and public speaker on global feminism and women’s issues in the MENA region. For the past five years, she has advised the United Nations, the European Commission, corporate institutions, and organizations on gender issues.  In 2016, she established Womenpreneur Initiative, an organization with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, which aims to advance women in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation, and society. In recognition of her achievements, Afouaiz was named an influential woman by the World Bank. On July 17, 2020 she spoke as a role model at UNIDO’s International Online Conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” organized in cooperation with UN Women and FAO.

You said that the cultural environment you lived in made discrimination perfectly acceptable and visible. Can you give us an example?

I grew up in Morocco, in a family of eight girls, and my sister and I have always been treated as if something was missing and that something was a man, a brother. This really hurt my sisters, who felt like we were not complete, we felt guilty because of our gender. I let all this make me stronger and inspire my work.

Do you still experience gender-based discrimination?

I do, every day. For instance, I’m quite direct, and in the culture I grew up in it is men who are supposed to be assertive. Women should rather be soft and sweet, and therefore they feel limited in terms of exploring discussions at a certain level. This reminds me a bit of the time when Aristotle and other eminent ancient thinkers would say that women were not capable of contributing to philosophical debate. It happened at a different time but it’s the same vision many have today.

I also face discrimination because of my age. Sometimes it is difficult for men to take me seriously when I’m looking for funds. I don’t mind people asking about my age when I am presenting a project to be sponsored but I do mind when that is the first question asked and the second is about my marital status. I don’t think men are usually asked those questions, no matter how young they are. 

In Morocco, only 5% of firms have a female top manager and only 10% of entrepreneurs are women. And in the whole MENA region, things are not any better. In your opinion, what holds female entrepreneurs back, at any level? 

Different issues come into play. And it is not the same in each country of the MENA region. In the eyes of westerners, the MENA region is perceived as one entity, but it is a very non-homogenous group and encompasses many countries, with a different history, culture, and political conditions.

If you take countries like Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia you will find that women have achieved certain rights, they are visible at some level and the lack of women’s participation in the economy is related mostly to the social atmosphere and the general mindset. 

As a matter of fact, there are a great number of female STEM graduates across the whole region. Yet, very few of them achieve entrepreneurial careers. How should this problem be addressed?

You can’t fix gender issues in the MENA region by merely giving women funds and teaching them how to become entrepreneurs, for instance. It has been done for years now and it just doesn’t work. Female entrepreneurs are still very few, they operate in informal markets and face constant discrimination. Those who are successful make it abroad, not in their country. Further problems are technical issues such as accessing the right human resources or the fact that the bureaucracy in the region is very complex. It’s a tricky process and in the end, female entrepreneurs get tired and give up. 

Another problem with the MENA region is women’s limited access to financing and most of it is microfinance. That’s why female-led startups are not thriving as they should. If we really want to support women, we should financially support their projects. With Womenpreneur we did training with some investors to make them understand the gender bias because sometimes it is internalized. The investors don’t feel like they are intentionally excluding women, but they do because it’s ingrained in their minds. 

What other factors may cause such imbalance?

A big issue is the access to resources and opportunities, which is a struggle for all entrepreneurs—men and women. We have Dubai, where you can find many huge investors and all the entrepreneurs want to go there to be funded and start their companies, but if you look at Arab startups you can see that they don’t last. 

The best example is Careem, the Uber of the Arab world. It was a huge success funded in Dubai and a product of the MENA region. But it was sold to Uber last year. The problem is that we don’t have a structured ecosystem that can help create innovative startups and make them last. 

Then you have the lack of a legal framework to explain and facilitate the creation of startups, companies, and entrepreneurial projects that could help boost the economy.

Can you give us more details about specific countries in the MENA region?

Some countries have a more developed approach than others. Tunisia, for instance, is a very good ecosystem, I find it dynamic, active, very supportive. 

Moreover, a very interesting initiative was started, when a group made of private and public institutions and entrepreneurs created a legal framework project explaining what is needed by different entrepreneurs to succeed with their startups in Tunisia. It was presented to the government and they accepted it. Today it is called Startup Act and is becoming a space that provides legal information, the right resources, the right contacts, the right business support and I think that’s amazing. 

But again, even in this space women are invisible, and female startup founders are few. But I believe in Tunisia’s effort to change that.

In 2019 Womenpreneur went on tour to map and visit the female entrepreneurial talents of three countries: Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan. Did you get new ideas or find new starting-points from this journey?

It was an amazing tour, we also did a policy paper study and roadshow events in each country. We traveled to different cities, meeting female tech entrepreneurs who developed interesting startups and companies, who raised huge funds inside their countries and have half of their offices across different countries, especially in Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

We have also conducted surveys with many women entrepreneurs in different countries, and we had meetings with experts from the financial sector, the public sector, and the government, to really have an overview of the baseline for women in tech. Afterwards, we published a document recommendation that also provides interesting propositions to improve the ecosystem for women in the region and I think it’s one of our tour’s highlights. 

Through our tour we connected more than 2,000 people and published engaging content through our media platform, reaching out to more than 500,000 people.  

Many businesses have been disrupted by Covid-19 and you are trying to share your experience through webinars and online events. Can you tell us more about your support for women entrepreneurs from the MENA region during the pandemic?

The first thing we did was set up an online space for women to access information and understand what they could do in the short term to revive their businesses and initiatives. 

Meanwhile, we’ve been running a research study in the MENA region about the impact of Covid-19 on women at different levels: social, economical, and political. The research was run by our experts and through that, we developed different possible projects we are going to implement in the region. One of them is a program dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs in understanding how to cope with the crisis. The program has been finalized and we are going to start it by December targeting women from 10 countries in the Mediterranean. 

We have also launched Generation W, an online six-month acceleration program to support women who are impacted by Covid-19, to help them find a job or develop a project. We’ve seen that the pandemic has heavily impacted the job market and it has created a lot of unemployment, 80% of which is affecting women. 

We focused on providing women with high-tech skills, and this will make it easier for them to find a new job. The program is ending at the end of November with a total of 140 activities developed with more than 20 national and international partners. 

How will developing tech skills help those women through the crisis and possibly afterwards?

Coronavirus has heavily hit the economy but we’ve also seen that a lot of jobs are not necessary anymore. The digital revolution is rapidly changing our economic systems. During the outbreak, robots have been used to clean hospitals in Japan, and unfortunately, that has cost many people their jobs. But robots have also been used a lot in the medical field. 

Coronavirus is just one of the many crises we’re going to live through and women may always be the frontline victims. That’s why we need to help these women acquire tech skills to survive and this is something we do through advocacy and lobbying, also advising international organizations. Women have been the face of Covid-19, they’ve been the ones saving people, from nurses to doctors to food providers, and it saddens me how different countries try to manage the crisis. When you see that there is no budget dedicated to women, even though they represent more than 50% in each country across the globe, it does say a lot.