Smart Economics and Women’s Empowerment


Investing in women and girls is plain common sense. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have recognized that if their nations are to increasingly participate in the competitive global economy, they will need to invest more and more in their human capital, of which half are women.

Since the 1990’s, the region’s leaders have begun investing in education—particularly that of girls and women. Moving through the 21st century, MENA has all but closed the education–gender gap, with the exception of a handful of countries. While today there are more women than men enrolled in universities in two-thirds of the region’s countries according to U.N. statistics, this has not yet translated into economic opportunities or equality for women. Women are still more than twice as likely to be unemployed as men and substantially less likely to hold political power.

The MENA region still ranks at the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks 136 countries annually based on the four pillars of Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. Clearly, there is a great need for solutions that support women’s economic participation in MENA in addition to the other pillars.

In response to this need, General Electric, a top employer of women in MENA, partnered with Ashoka Changemakers last year to launch “Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region,” an online competition to source and help fund innovative ideas that provide economic opportunities and equality for women in MENA, Turkey, and Pakistan.1 Turkey and Pakistan were also included within the competition area as the economic environment for women in these two countries is similar to that in MENA.

Leveraging the combined network of GE, Ashoka Fellows, and on-the-ground innovators was particularly important given MENA’s diversity, with entrants coming from remote and less developed countries like Yemen to more industrialized countries like the United Arab Emirates. We also tapped the power of our virtual platform to source and engage local social entrepreneurs in MENA. Together with GE, we were able to source 107 entries from 18 countries in the MENA region. This was the first time Ashoka Changemakers fully supported Arabic language entries for both the competition and outreach.

Several significant innovation trends emerged from the “Women Powering Work” competition entrants. Perhaps the most striking trend we saw was the use of technology to address women’s mobility—one of the biggest barriers to creating economic opportunities for women in MENA and Pakistan.

Whether entrants provided a virtual workplace for engineers in Jordan and Saudi Arabia,2 created a mobile phone platform to provide women with employment opportunities in Egypt,3 or increased access to training and digital jobs for rural women in Pakistan,4 it is clear that technology is at the core of many innovative solutions that are increasing economic opportunities for women.

Leveraging technology was a strategy most often utilized in the more industrialized and educated Gulf States, whereas providing resources such as education and training was a key strategy in less developed regions, where access to education, training, and technologies remains a significant barrier.

Another trend we saw was providing education, training, and other resources to underserved target audiences such as female prisoners in Egypt to break the cycle of recidivism or women agricultural entrepreneurs in Afghanistan to enable them to increase their productivity and access larger markets.5,6

Technological innovations are already bridging the gender gap and offering more economic opportunities for women, particularly by addressing the lack of mobility for many of the women in the MENA region. Yet many women, particularly in lesser-developed countries and remote communities, are unable to participate in such solutions, either because they don’t have access to computers and the Internet or because they lack the necessary training to use them.

We need to create more access to technology so that innovative and effective tech solutions can reach underserved and rural women. In tandem with leveraging technology, education, and skills training, elevating women to positions that influence policy and legislation will also be a key lever of change.

There is no doubt that faster progress could be made with regard to women’s economic equality, and the political empowerment of women in MENA will be an exciting trend to watch. For example, while Saudi Arabia is still the lowest performing high-income country on the WEF’s Gender Gap Index, it has shown the biggest overall score improvement out of all the countries in MENA. This leap was the result of Saudi Arabia’s recent introduction of a new 20 percent quota for women in parliament (previously, all-male).

The MENA region ranks lowest among all regions with regard to Political Empowerment in the WEF Gender Gap Report. But it’s also where MENA countries are showing the most marked changes. Enabling women to have an equal voice on the policies that influence them would open the doors for systems-wide change.