Acceptance and rise of Women Traders in the UAE
It is quarter past seven and Sandhya is nearly tired of walking at the LED Lights and Solar show held in Seoul. She looks around to find some businessmen to network with but they seem too busy in their own groups.
She gets a message and leaves instantly. It was from a business connect from India who had invited her over dinner. She meets him and together they discuss which suppliers are good to trade within their respective markets and have a productive conversation.
“This happened because we were in touch with each other much before. I doubt if we were complete strangers, the man or I would approach each other for a lengthy discussion,” says Sandhya Prakash, Founder and Managing Director, Beacon Energy Solution and Technology. “With men, it is different. Traveling together to say China or Africa to scout for suppliers or customers is one thing I could never break into.”
Like Sandhya, there are many other women facing similar issues. Since centuries, trading has been considered a male dominant industry. Traditionally, women did not work and when they started working, they ventured into ‘softer skills’ like teaching, nursing and so on. Now, things are changing but despite all the awareness, educational opportunities and talks about equality, the situation hasn’t changed much.
Despite the fact that women make up 70% of the region’s university graduates and 44% of the workforce, women traders and entrepreneurs continue to face a number of challenges.
As mentioned earlier, trading has been a male-dominated profession and for a woman to not only survive, but also thrive in this environment is quite tough. Psychologically people are attuned to seeing a trader as a man in a suit and it becomes quite difficult for a woman to get past this perceived image of excellence and establish her own credentials.
Farah Anwar, head of Ashraf Electronics, Dubai, had started her business when she was 25 and her sister was 21. Back then, they were the only women traders in the market of electronics. “There were a couple of women in distribution companies and working with corporates in the local market but no one actually trading,” she says. “This was because the market conditions weren't always conducive to women working in the field. Neither the offices, nor the profile of customers made for a comfortable environment and there were traders from all walks of life, all over the world who would come and trade electronics in Dubai.” But why have women chosen to stay away from trading since years?
Dr Cyril Widdershoven, Director of Dutch consultancy VEROCY, focusing on the Middle East, investments and oil-gas related developments, including geopolitics owes it to the cultural mindset of individuals. “I am from New York and there is still a tendency that if you will ask a man whom is he going to promote, he will promote a man because he is more likely to click with him than with a woman. Men between each other are more outspoken, blunt etc. If you put women there, they need to change the way they behave which they may or may not be open to.”
Secondly, educational differences make is much harder for women to be employed for trading roles than men. According to statistics, in a Technology University, approximately 18,000 graduates pass out each year out of which only 13% are women. In the world, there are 51% women so in total, there are only a handful who are actually choosing to become engineers or acquire a technical degree. Most of the women are choosing different career options, termed as ‘soft skills’ like teaching, nursing, finance and more. “It is much more easier to have women make a career in white collar sectors such as finance, commerce and more because they are considered to be more open for feminine careers,” says Cyril. “The question is actually how many women are willing to get their hands dirty in the oil and gas industry? If it is only a handful then why are we blaming the industry for not being open to them?”
Farah seconds that women are choosing different career options but she feels it is due to the low margins and opportunities being provided. “…the fact that the margins remain low, trading opportunities in electronics have become narrower and there are so many alternate lucrative options for women to do business that with the exception of second generation entrants, there is very little to attract women into trading.” So to attract more women into trading, the trading industry as a whole needs to undergo a systematic change wherein there is more on plate for women to take in terms of opportunities, new lines, profits and more, to attract more women into the line.
State of trading sector today
At present, the trading sector comes under the informal economy and thus grapples with all the problems that beset the informal sector like irresponsible business practices, technological underdevelopment, inefficiencies, etc. This is also one of the reasons why lesser number of women are attracted towards trading. But Farah is hopeful that technological advancement and the fact that mobile phones and electronics are 2 out of Dubai's top 5 non-oil traded commodities will pave the way for the formalisation of trading activities in the UAE which will encourage more women to participate in trading.
Scope of improvement
As of today the industry is male-dominated and functions in a manner more suitable for males but it needs to evolve with the changing social norms so that women feel more comfortable in the industry. It needs to encourage women and give them opportunities to participate.
Sandhya opines that senior women in the field need to come forward to coach and mentor newer women members in the trade to increase the number of women in this field. Similarly, society and particularly males need to understand the way women function, respect their abilities and change their whole outlook towards the women workforce.
“Change is coming but it is slow,” says Cyril. “Five-six years ago, if you entered a corporate office in the Middle East, you would only find ladies at the reception and nowhere in the top management. However, now we see an influx of Saudi and Emirati women taking up various management roles and handling them responsibly.”
But while the changes will take time, industrialists need to consider making small reforms on a daily basis to have more women into the trading workforce and thus create a sustainable environment in the industry.