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October 10, 2019

Women Entrepreneurs in the UAE: Beating the Odds in a Patriarchal Society

Murat Sakir Erogul, PhD, focuses his research on entrepreneurship, gender and identity, organizational leadership and family business management. He has published research on the topic of female entrepreneurs in developing and emerging countries. 

Starting a successful business is hard enough in the best of circumstances—an entrepreneur needs capital, strong social networks and a legal system that ensures a level playing field for businesses big and small. Women entrepreneurs in deeply patriarchal societies must contend not only with these challenges but with others that severely restrict their freedom.

Murat Sakir Erogul, PhD, focuses his research on entrepreneurship, gender and identity, organizational leadership and family business management. He has published research on the topic of female entrepreneurs in developing and emerging countries.

Yet many women in traditional patriarchal societies are launching successful businesses. How do they do it?

After 11 years of living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Murat Sakir Erogul, PhD, assistant professor of management in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, decided to find out. Specifically, he wanted to understand how each entrepreneurial woman’s activities, attitudes and aspirations “helped some women move forward and others not.”

Patriarchal systems are ripe for study in the UAE, where mixing with men, working late and traveling alone are taboo for women. And though these attitudes are changing, Dr. Erogul said, “the concept of a working woman (a wife, a daughter) is seen as something shameful. The thought is that the man is not able to financially take care of his family.”

To understand how women are navigating these constraints, Dr. Erogul conducted a series of interviews with successful and unsuccessful women entrepreneurs, asking them questions about belonging, legitimacy, justification, challenges, emotions and strategies. He then analyzed the women’s stories and ideas about identity to find patterns and trends.

Simply conducting such interviews posed its own challenges. “As a male, I knew I should not initiate reaching out for a handshake,” Dr. Erogul said. Some women were hesitant to sign consent forms, fearing a breach of their anonymity. Still others declined to be interviewed because they worried Dr. Erogul’s data would reinforce the perception that Emirati women are oppressed.

Despite these obstacles, Dr. Erogul sat down with many women entrepreneurs, usually in their places of business, and listened to their stories. What they told him came as a surprise. “The women who were able to achieve their objectives were the ones who facilitated cooperation, collaboration and coordination with men in their networks of family and close friends,” he said. This dependence on cooperation with men contradicted the existing literature, which held that women should not cultivate male network partners.

Dr. Erogul also found that a common identity emerged among successful women entrepreneurs, who universally tended to exhibit “the behavior of self-agency.” Further, Dr. Erogul identified the process by which women in the UAE gain power and self-agency: They erode the systems that oppress them through a series of “micro-emancipations.” That is, women “know [their] boundaries but strategically—slowly, incrementally, tactfully, thoughtfully—push and change them,” he said.

These micro-emancipations collectively result in a process Dr. Erogul labels “strategic disobedience.” This concept, Dr. Erogul’s unique contribution to the field, explains how women both resist and comply so that men ultimately “become their network partners with whom they can cooperate and collaborate rather than try and avoid.” Over the course of his interviews, he encountered women who had, through strategic disobedience, convinced aggressive and oppositional husbands to support their wives’ businesses.

Dr. Erogul published his findings in “Strategic (dis)obedience: Female entrepreneurs reflecting on and acting upon patriarchal practices,” in the September 2018 issue of the journal Gender, Work & Organization. The article was co-authored by Salvador Barragan, PhD, of Thompson Rivers University, and Caroline Essers, PhD, of Radboud University.

Still, Dr. Erogul cautions, more research in other contexts is required before we can dub this strategy a blueprint for women’s emancipation. In the meantime, he urges ordinary citizens “on the ground” to do what we can. “What is needed is bottom-up change,” he said. “We can all contribute towards more equality through self-reflecting on our own biases.”


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