Q&A: Economic Empowerment Gives Women Choices

  • Cam McGrath interviews AMANY ASFOUR, the Egyptian Business Women Association (cairo)
  • Sunday, August 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

A privatisation drive, launched in the early 1990s, has created new opportunities for women in business. The dismantling of state enterprises, however, means less jobs for women, in part because private employers are unwilling to shoulder the maternity-related benefits guaranteed by the state.

Amany Asfour, president of the Egyptian Business Women Association (EBWA), was trained as a pediatrician and established a medical supply company in the 1980s. Her experiences as a female entrepreneur seem to be behind the conviction that 'financial independence for women gives them the power of choice and voice.'

IPS spoke to Asfour about the challenges Egyptian women face in business, as well as the balance between career and family.

IPS: Women represent just 25 percent of the workforce in Egypt, compared to an average of 45 percent in most North American and European countries. What is preventing women from having a larger role in the labor force?

AMANY ASFOUR: These are official labour figures, but they do not account for the informal sector. In the private sector you have a lot of micro-businesses that are run by women, though they are not registered and don’t appear in the statistics.

When women are able to accumulate enough capital to launch a business they often do it on an informal basis. They might start a trade, make handicrafts or develop a product. What’s keeping these women from joining the formal sector is that to do so they would have to deal with bookkeeping, taxes and banks - and many women do not have the skills, or courage, to handle these things.

And these are the skills we want to empower women in. We need to encourage them to become financially responsible, overcome their fear, and have good standing with the state.

IPS: Many Egyptian women have jobs, but relatively few occupy high-level positions. What can be done to reduce the gender gap in management?

AA: Women may not yet occupy 50 percent of the top positions in the government and private sector, but they are well represented at the second tier. The question now is how can we empower women to be more qualified? We need to train women to have the technical and decision-making skills required for these top positions.

If an Egyptian woman is qualified, you cannot prevent her from rising to the top because we have a good system here, similar to how the military operates, where qualified individuals are promoted by seniority. If it’s my turn to head the department, I head the department. This is the case in the public sector at least.

In the private sector the first challenge for women is to be able to take decisions. One reason you find less women in senior positions in the private sector is because they tend to lack the education, courage and risk aversion of their male counterparts. We need to promote women into decision-making roles, but this means finding women who are really qualified. The private sector does not discriminate between a man and a woman because of their sex; employment is based on their qualifications. In the end, business is about profits, not charity.

IPS: Is there a big gender gap in education?

AA: Now it is much better than before. In the past, there was a very big gap in women’s enrollment in education, but the latest figures show female enrollment in elementary education has reached 95 percent. The gap comes with secondary and post-secondary education, where girls often drop out either because they don’t want to continue, for family reasons, or to marry.

Parents have to be convinced that education is essential for their daughter’s future, not just for their sons. But a lot has changed and fathers are now realising this. In fact, we’re seeing more women than men in many higher education institutions, and they’re outscoring their male counterparts because they’re determined to prove themselves.

IPS: How do Egyptian women reconcile between career and family?

AA: There are always priorities in our lives, but it’s important to find a balance between work and family. For me, family is number one. I believe that we empower women for the sake of the family. Our organisation’s slogan is ‘financial independence gives you the power of voice and choice.’ We try to empower women economically so they will have a choice. Maybe she wants to start a business or be a CEO, or maybe she would prefer to stay at home and raise a family - in the end it’s her choice.

IPS: The man is the traditionally the head of the household in Egypt. Does being a successful female businesswoman undermine this role?

AA: Even if a woman is a CEO at the end of the work day she comes home to her husband. She cannot come back to the house and tell him ‘I am a CEO, I will do as I like.’ He is not an employee. Marriage is a partnership, which is why choosing the right partner is an important decision in life. After that, it’s luck and god’s will, but choosing a partner who feels and understands your career choices is very important.

I believe a husband is a partner in life. He is not a person to sponsor me, and he is not a person who dictates what he wants. Both of us have an opinion, and both of us share everything together for the sake of building our family.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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