A Women’s World: About Virtual Offices and Gender Gyms
For women from the Middle East or North Africa, it is often difficult to find paid work. But there are solutions: If you’re not allowed to work in public spaces—create a virtual office. If you’re not feeling comfortable in Internet cafés—use your mobile phone.
More than 60% of women in Saudi Arabia achieve higher education—yet only 17% of these women are employed, compared to 75 percent of their male colleagues. “Sixty percent of [Saudi] women with PhDs are currently unemployed. This is a staggering statistic,” says Khalid AlKhudair, chief executive of Glowork, an organization that has created a women-only website for accessing job opportunities. Khalid is an Ashoka fellow, an organization that supports social entrepreneurs worldwide.
Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only 25% of women participate in the workforce—half the rate of the global average, according to a recent World Bank report. In Turkey, which is sometimes included as part of the MENA region, only 23.5% of women are employed.
The virtual office
Organizations like Glowork and some MENA governments are working to realize the untapped potential of women through a variety of innovations and initiatives. In addition to matching women job-seekers with employers, Glowork has pioneered a “virtual office solution” that makes it possible for women to telecommute from home, and for companies that hire them to easily monitor their work.
Businesses are often disincentivized from hiring women because they must bear the cost of complying with gender segregation laws: separate offices, facilities, and guards must be provided.
Further, businesses are often disincentivized from hiring women because they must bear the cost of complying with gender segregation laws: separate offices, facilities, and guards must be provided. Restrictions to travel such as a ban on driving for women in Saudi Arabia also pose further barriers.
But a virtual office for women provides a possible pathway for women to hold jobs despite these constraints.
There are other initiatives in MENA that are also leveraging technology in order to remove limitations on women’s mobility, so that they can more easily connect with employers. Souktel, in Palestine, has developed an SMS-based job search platform that is customized for use by women.
“Traditional families often don’t allow women to search for jobs in person, and Internet cafés are usually dominated by men, leaving female job-seekers with few resources for finding work,” says Lana Hijazi, founder of Souktel. But through Souktel and any mobile phone, job seekers can create “mini-CVs” as text messages that include basic data about their skills and location. Employers also upload mini-job ads to the Souktel database, enabling job seekers to search for opportunities from their own phones.
A franchise of women-only gyms
Women, especially those in rural areas or within concentrated urban communities, can also be unaware of their own entrepreneurial potential. To help women connect with role models and access entrepreneurial information, social innovators are creating hands-on learning opportunities that enable women to build business skills, tap into networks, and strengthen their self-confidence.
For example, Ashoka Fellow Bedriye Hulya founded b-Fit, a franchise of women-only gyms in Turkey that are owned and staffed exclusively by women. According to b-Fit, women in Turkey—especially women who are married and have children—face strong societal pressures not to work.[5, 6]
Further, most private spaces for exercise consist of football fields and bodybuilding salons dominated by men, and public parks are either unsafe or not socially acceptable spaces for women to exercise in. b-Fit combines sports and entrepreneurship in a way that challenges traditional gender norms and advances women’s economic equity.
Not only do b-Fit centers offer a space for women to boost their fitness and play sports, they also provide workshops on entrepreneurship, leadership, communication, nutrition, and health.
Not only do b-Fit centers offer a space for women to boost their fitness and play sports; they also provide workshops on entrepreneurship, leadership, communication, nutrition, and health. Furthermore, the franchises can only be bought by women. b-Fit also offers interest-free financing to women having difficulty accessing capital.
Many franchisees have only a basic education and no prior work experience, but once a franchisee joins b-Fit, she receives continual business training and support, including counseling on managing her finances and investing in her future. Eventually, Hulya hopes that empowering more women to become successful business owners will inspire other women to pursue professional opportunities as well.
“If [a franchisee] is able to change her life, she has the potential to change other women’s lives as well,” Hulya says. “That’s what makes her powerful.”
The women farmers’ cooperative
There are other social innovators in MENA who are bringing women together by organizing groups for, and run by, women with common economic goals. For example, Sakhrah Women’s Society in Jordan is the region’s first union established for women farmers that helps poor women farmers form cooperatives, enabling them to work together on income-generating projects like harvesting vegetables, processing grains, dairy production, or needlework.
“Women in the Arab world are mostly excluded from decision-making processes at all levels, from the household to the government,” according to Zeinab Al-Momani, founder of Sakhrah Women’s Society. “Even though women contribute to household income, they are rarely consulted on issues such as loan and credit applications, management, or on other financial matters.” 
The cooperatives create a space where women can engage in decision-making and empower themselves by sharing information and working together. The women can also access group loans.
By managing their own projects and financial matters, the women gain skills that transfer into life outside the cooperative.
By managing their own projects and financial matters, the women gain skills that transfer into life outside the cooperative. Skills in teamwork, communication, strategic planning, and governance empower the women to become active problem-solvers and see opportunities where they can help their families and communities.
There is a wealth of other strategies being pioneered by social innovators in MENA. Each country presents a unique context and set of challenges and opportunities. For instance, Nawal Fakhri from Lebanon has founded a taxi agency, which is operated by women and serves women customers only. Other countries like Iran, Egypt and Kuwait have already copied the idea.
Want to take up the challenge?
To learn more about the latest innovations in this area, visit the of Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region  website, an online competition by Ashoka Changemakers  and General Electric , calling for initiatives that enable women in MENA to achieve economic equality, strengthen their families and communities, and benefit equitably from economic growth.
Liked the innovations you saw above? Get a more in-depth perspective on these and other social innovations that are turning challenges into opportunities that spark hope for a better future in the Women Powering Work report.
Follow the #womenWork hashtag on Twitter  to follow trends about women’s economic equality in MENA!
 More on ashoka.org (Khalid AlKhudair)  World Bank Report “Opening doors”  “Women Still an Untapped Labor Force in Turkey” on nytimes.com  More on souktel.org  More on ashoka.org (Bedriye Hulya)  More on b-fit.com.tr  More on ashoka.org (Zeinab Al-Momani)  Paper: Internationalization of Higher Education in MENA. Policy Issues Associated with Skills Formation and Mobility. Report No: 63762 on sitersources.worldbank.org (PDF)  Women Powering Work on changemakers.com  ASHOKA Changemakers on changemakers.com  General Electric  Woman Powering Work report  Twitter #womenWork
Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric are searching for social innovators who are unleashing economic opportunities for women across the MENA region. Follow #womenWork on Twitter to receive the latest on trends and competition news.
Photo credit: İHH İnsani Yardım Vakfı
Editor’s Note: A version of this blog post was originally published on Digital Development Debates and is cross-posted here with permission.