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Businesswomen everywhere find it hard to move up the male dominated corporate ladder, but in the Middle East female entrepreneurs have to overcome generations of deeply rooted stereotypes to make their voices heard.
The Economic Conference for Jewish and Arab Businesswomen in Israel recently brought together hundreds of businesswomen, both Jewish and Arab, to help boost their enterprises and to network with peers.
The conference, organized by the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, Jasmine: The Association of Businesswomen in Israel and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, featured Cherie Blair, a women's empowerment advocate and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"I think they have more in common than [things which are] different," Blair told The Media Line
. "We may often think of Israel as a developed country and yet it doesn't have European levels of women in the workforce. That affects Jewish women more than Arab women, but there is no doubt there are fewer Arab women than Jews in the workplace."
Nadia Hilou, a former Israeli Arab member of Knesset (the Israeli parliament), argues that the presence of most Israeli Arab women in villages far from the bustling city centers makes it harder for them to make a dent.
"Today we have only 20% of Arab women working, compared to 54% of Israeli women," Hilou said. "Arab women are hugely under-represented in the political sphere on both the local level and the national level. The problems start with the fact that they are not only women in a patriarchal society, but are also an Arab minority in a Jewish country."
During a presentation on Internet advertising and increasing Google ratings, a veiled Arab woman hurried out the lecture hall and sought a quiet spot to calm her wailing toddler. This minor incident drew sympathetic looks from many of the participants, who know the difficulties of juggling a business with family life and household responsibilities.
"You have to find a solution for daycare for children," Hilou said. "Arab families are bigger, they have larger numbers of children and we haven't got enough daycare centers. This influences the decision of women to go to work."
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"Another issue is transportation," she mentioned. "We haven't got enough buses and sometimes women don't even have their own car. Most of the businesses aren't in the villages and they have to go out and travel."
Ofra Strauss, Chairwomen of the Strauss Group, has been ranked 42 by Fortune Magazine's list of most powerful women in business. She talked about the need for diversity and promoting women in businesses.
"It's an issue all around the world and we have a lot to learn about this," she said, adding that people do not usually expect an Israeli business to focus on diversity.
Blair echoed Strauss' sentiments.
"One of the barriers is the lack of expectation that women, even when educated, will put that education to work outside the home," she argued. "You don't see enough women in the workplace and those in the workplace are regarded unusual and different and that can be discouraging."
"I was the first in my family to go to university and then I was one of a small number of female lawyers in the 1970s," said Blair, a successful barrister who today holds the prestigious title of Queen's Counsel. "To be the first to do anything is something that I've experienced. It can make you strong but it can also be daunting."
"Another barrier for women is finance," she
commented. "When it comes to loaning money for businesses, we don't see as many women coming forward. We don't see the banks as willing to lend to women, they don't have the imagination to think that women are a good market to invest in."
Hilou said that during her tenure as a lawmaker she tried to advance laws concerning women's status but more often than not, she encountered brick walls.
"I can't say it's enough because many of my laws were voted down," she said of her efforts to pass legislation.
"Women are advancing, they're not treading on the same spot but this advancement is very slow and I think it must be faster," she said. "The men must also work.it must be a struggle of society."
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