BEIRUT: Women working in competitive, male-dominated fields like online business should foster mentoring relationships to boost their numbers, a group of leading female entrepreneurs said Tuesday.
“We started finding our way by talking to people, being mentored by others,” said Rima al-Husseiny, founder and CEO of Blessing, a chocolate and souvenir gift service. “The idea [of mentoring] is still very new in our society.”
The importance of mentoring, particularly for women in technology or business, was recently highlighted by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her memoir “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” which has risen to the top of the bestseller lists in the United States.
Husseiny’s comments were made during a media round table hosted by the non-profit company Endeavor at its Beirut offices Wednesday as part of an initiative aimed at supporting women in the online business world.
Sandberg’s message of solidarity was echoed by Tuesday’s round-table participants, who discussed the importance of flexibility and moral support in retaining women in the work force.
Nibal Edlebi, chief of Information and Communications Technology Applications Division at ESCWA and head of the Digital Arabic Content Initiative, said many studies show women were “nonexistent” in the ICT sector.
“We need to encourage women to compete more,” Edlebi added.
One advantage of working online is that it allows women to keep working while managing to stay home, particularly since a large number of working women tend to leave their jobs for the sake of marriage or having children, said Tania Moussallem, head of Strategic Development and Financial Management and assistant general manager at BLC, and head of the Women Empowerment initiative.
“Families are hindering women from going into business, or they are beginning and stopping to get married, have a child, etc.,” she explained. “Role modeling is very important.”
The WE program focuses on mentorship, which she says is “the key to success,” and prevents women from making the same mistake twice.
With the Lebanese economy struggling, women’s economic potential is being disregarded, said Farah Bachacha, the associate account director at global public relations firm Weber Shandwick.
Of the most essential factors, mentorship programs top the chart, the entrepreneurs agreed, and seeking advice in a male-dominated field can greatly help with the integration of women.
“Business is a hard world, there’s a lot of competition. You have to deal with being a woman, and take all the advantages of being a woman, but it’s not enough,” said Delphine Edde, partner and publishing director at Diwanee and Endeavor entrepreneur. Edde created her digital media company five years ago, and has built one of the largest female audiences across the Middle East.
She also said that mentoring could create an impact on women’s professionalism in the industry, as a lot of her employees primarily lacked the necessary online skills.
In addition to the gender disparity, online business faces a number of obstacles in Lebanon and the Arab world at large.
Many people are hesitant to purchase products through the Internet. They are distrustful of online payment methods, are unsure of shipping means, and the overall system is not as easy in the Middle East as it is in the Western world, which is why electronic commerce, commonly known as e-commerce, is not as prominent in the region.
According to the round-table participants, however, welcoming women into a traditionally male-dominated field could yield new insights to help kickstart the industry.