The Economist: The Middle East Beats the West in Female Tech Founders

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Facing dim career prospects as traditional employees, women in the Middle East make up a surprisingly large percentage of founders, reports the magazine.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Thanks to the fallout from the Arab Spring, most media attention on the Middle East lately has focused on the region’s political problems and shaky experiments with democracy, but according to The Economist another transformation is quietly happening under the radar — women in the region are founding more and more tech businesses.

A short piece in the British magazine shines a light on the little known fact that the region, more famous in America for its bitter conflicts and troubled relationship with women’s rights, actually outperforms the West when it comes to the percentage of tech startups that are founded by women.

“Only 10% of internet entrepreneurs across the world are women, according to Startup Compass, a firm that tracks such things,” the article reports. “Except in Amman and other Middle Eastern cities, it seems. There, the share of women entrepreneurs is said to average 35%.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is the reason for Middle Eastern women’s interest in entrepreneurship. Getting anywhere in male-dominated established business is very difficult thanks to entrenched attitudes towards women in much of the region (startup mad Israel being the obvious exception):

Reasons abound, and they are not always positive, says Nina Curley, [online publication for startups] Wamda’s editor. Although more than half of university graduates in many Middle Eastern countries (51% in Jordan) are women, the workforce is dominated by men (women provide only 21% of it overall, and a paltry 16% in Jordan). The internet, however, is a new space that is more meritocratic and not as heavily male. The technology also lets entrepreneurs work from home, making it easier to raise children.

Traditional ideas about women’s role in society still cause these trail-blazing founders plenty of problems, several of which are outlined in the complete article, but the piece ends on an optimistic note:

“The number of women entrepreneurs in the Middle East is likely to grow, including in the least likely places. ‘Well-educated women in Saudi Arabia want to work, but their family often objects,’ explained an entrepreneur at the Wamda shindig. ‘Running an internet start-up from home is the perfect compromise.’”

Do these statistics surprise you?

jstillman Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter @entrylevelrebel.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum via Flickr.