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December 12, 2018

Never Give Up: How Women Pursue Entrepreneurship in the UAE’s Patriarchal Culture

A woman working on a laptop

In patriarchal societies, women entrepreneurs face barriers not experienced by male counterparts, such as strictures regarding working after dark, being away from their children, doing business with men and traveling for business. Consequently, they engage in a never-ending series of negotiations with male family members to gain permission and support to conduct their entrepreneurial activities, said Murat Sakir Erogul, Ph.D., assistant professor of management.

“In the Gulf Region as a whole, a constant tension exists between men as dominators and women as the dominated,” he said. “Women’s activities are constrained by men, social structure and cultural norms.”

Male family support, therefore, is vital for women entrepreneurs in these societies to have sufficient freedom to conduct their businesses, as well as to achieve access to bank loans, networking and business introductions.

“As the gatekeepers of material social structures, men can play an important role as supporters of women to help them succeed in business, but there’s little in the literature about men in patriarchal contexts as supporters for women entrepreneurs in terms of navigating the unique social arrangements of these cultures,” he said.

New research from Dr. Erogul and colleagues examines the complex and dynamic give-and-take of micro-emancipation—the incremental process of liberating from social strictures—by women entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite various UAE governmental initiatives to encourage women in businesses, sociocultural barriers remain.

“Entrepreneurial activity in the UAE is pretty high, but low in numbers of women,” he said. “There’s a big gap between the numbers of men and women entrepreneurs.”

The researchers investigated micro-emancipation from the standpoint of agency (relating to the women’s actions) and identity (how they viewed themselves both as compliant women and competent entrepreneurs) and examined the means by which these women loosen the constraints imposed on them by male family members.

“Strategic (dis)obedience: Female entrepreneurs reflecting on and acting upon patriarchal practices,” by Dr. Erogul; Salvador Barragan, Ph.D., of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada; and Caroline Essers, Ph.D., of Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, was published in the journal Gender, Work & Organization.

Twenty-two married and unmarried Emirati women in the early stages of business startup, defined as less than 3.5 years of experience, agreed to participate in the study. All were Islamic, fluent in English, university educated and from middle- and upper-class families. Their businesses covered a wide range of retail and service industries.

Dr. Erogul interviewed the participants at their workplaces regarding their experiences in becoming entrepreneurs, obstacles they encountered and how they responded to these obstacles. The resulting narratives were analyzed for insights into the daily dilemma of constructing their identities as female entrepreneurs within the boundaries of traditional womanhood and the process of attaining support from male family members.

Results highlighted the importance of persistence and patience for these women, who had to endlessly explain to men the reasons for certain business activities, and persuade, compromise and seek alternative actions until permission and/or help was granted. The women strategically obeyed the men while also asking for support and constantly evaluating their constraints to slowly move the boundaries, bit by bit.

“It’s an intricate blend of micro-emancipation and compliance, generally without openly disrupting the status quo,” Dr. Erogul said. “They have to be determined to gain male support in an active, constant process, to shift the male mindset from that of gatekeepers to that of supporters. Some women give up on the first ‘no.’ Some never give up and others give up somewhere in between. The ones who succeed are very determined, very passionate.”

Dr. Erogul is currently researching Mexican female entrepreneurs and how emotion impacts their identities as women and as entrepreneurs. He is also studying how women in the Turkish armed forces construct their ideal identities within the competing demands of traditional societal norms and the expectations of military service in terms of admired and condemned behaviors.

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