Tapping into female empowerment

Authors: Rania Adwan

In the Arab world, a confident and connected generation of women has moved to the forefront of social, economic and political change. Increasing female empowerment lies in the nexus of literacy and innovation, but are business strategies reflecting the opportunities that arise when women learn?

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, he ignited a powder keg of resentment against unpopular governments in North Africa and the Middle East. Demonstrations sprang up in cities across the region, enabled and fuelled in large part by the use of social media to communicate information, circumvent censorship and co-ordinate action. Inspired by Bouazizi’s brave stand, 27-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz created a video blog asking her fellow Egyptians to protest against the injustices and corruption of the Mubarak regime. Mahfouz’s video went viral and helped amass more than 50,000 people in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, the start of Egypt’s revolution.

Region-wide, the uprisings have toppled three governments and still smoulder in a number of countries, including Syria and Bahrain. Motivations are thought to have been inextricably rooted in high unemployment rates, rising food prices and a general exacerbation with corrupt and brutal authoritarian regimes. The most salient features of the protests were the ferocity and unpredictability with which they spread and the striking role that women played, both online and in the streets.

A common stereotype of Arab women is that they are cloaked, repressed and at the mercy of dominant patriarchs. But, for the most part, that’s far from the truth. The stereotype fails to reflect the different circumstances in which an Arab woman finds herself in North Africa, versus the Levant, versus the Gulf. Women in North Africa and the Levant have traditionally enjoyed a more inclusive place in society, with greater rights and access to education. Growing equality and educational opportunities have led to women occupying seats in the Kuwaiti parliament. Even in Yemen, where progress toward emancipation has been limited, a significant number of business professionals are female.

With education serving as the impetus for female empowerment throughout the Middle East, the Internet and social media offered women an opportunity to participate in and even lead social change. The United Nations Population Fund cites education as ‘one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process’.1 Education is a stepping stone to economic development and helps women ‘to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them’.

Female empowerment, economically and politically, is expected to transform the global landscape over the next 20 years, at least as much as technological innovation.2 Mobile devices and social networks are formidable tools, but just as important are the people using them. As Egypt’s revolution highlights, a combination of greater education among women and the opportunities to share ideas and information through digital communication are unleashing forces that businesses cannot afford to ignore. As we examine in this article, supporting education for women could help your business to take advantage of these opportunities.

Benefits of education

Research by the World Bank highlights the benefits of female literacy, including better health and lower child mortality rates, as well as better health and nutrition habits passed on to her immediate family.3 Literate women are more likely to be politically active and look to exercise their rights as engaged members of society.

From an economic perspective, literate women are also more likely to join the workforce and spend earnings on their children — more so than their male counterparts.4 For businesses exploring new markets, rising female literacy levels are a useful indicator of investment potential. In helping to boost women’s participation in the workforce, productivity increases. Over time, increasing educational opportunities raises incomes and creates a new set of customers waiting to be served. Former World Bank chief economist Larry Summers once reported that women’s income can rise by as much as 10%, sometimes 20%, for each year of education gained.5 And as the Arab Spring shows, female literacy can have a decisive influence on a country’s political future, as well as its economic environment. Writing in World Economics, David Bloom argues that the hurdles of globalisation, including the merging of national markets and increased competitive pressures, can be overcome by increasing investment in education. ‘Education has been a vital component of the successful globalisers’ progress. Those countries that have moved from low to higher incomes — think of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Ireland — appear to have advanced at least partly on the basis of a strong commitment to education at all levels...China, too, had created a highly literate population through effective primary and secondary education before it began to develop’.6 When governments invest in education and ensure access for girls and women, they are more likely to play an active role in society. This eventually seeps into the labour market, lowering unemployment rates and increasing productivity.7

Literacy rates among Arab women have lagged behind other parts of the world, but that is changing. Tunisia, whose revolution was largely peaceful and quick, boasts a comparatively high female literacy of 70%.8 This matches women’s strong presence in the workforce, where they account for as much as a fifth of the country’s earners and almost half of union members.9 In Egypt, the percentage of literate female adults is about 60%.

Yemen has by far the lowest female literacy rate in the region, with barely a quarter of Yemeni women able to read and write. It is therefore little surprise that only 5% of Yemen’s female population are in paid work. Yet Yemeni women in urban centres also account for a quarter of college students and play a vital role in businesses. Tawakul Karmen, a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, quickly became the voice and public face of the anti-government uprising in that country. It earned her the distinction of a Nobel Peace Prize and has raised aspirations for other women in her country.

The coming together of education and digital communication can create a virtuous circle, with growing literacy rates allowing women to make use of the Internet and, by extension, the Internet and mobile phone access provide channels to support education in remote areas. Notable examples include a pilot programme launched by UNESCO in Pakistan. Over five months, 250 women (aged 15 to 25) were given a cellphone and asked to ‘practice reading and writing the messages in their work book and reply to their teachers by text’. They developed basic literacy skills using cellphone-based games and quizzes. By the end of the initiative, grade-A attainment had doubled and fewer students achieved grade Cs.10

Women leading change

Women have long been at the vanguard of protest in the Arab world, playing a prominent role in the independence movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria in the last century. But the number of people who turned out in protest last year dwarfed all previous efforts. While there are a multitude of reasons for the unrest, one important factor is that women are more conscious of their political and legal environment. Armed with Internet access and mobile networks, they were able to not only communicate, but also collaborate and act against civil injustices and human rights abuses. According to Le Monde diplomatique, the particular advantage of social media is that it allows women to ‘assert leadership roles in cyberspace that young men’s dominance in the public sphere might have hampered in city squares’.11

Figure 1: “What do you use media for?”

The Dubai School of Government’s latest Arab Social Media Report heralds women as the ‘main drivers for regional change’, with their social media use far more focused on networking, accessing information, looking for work and, of course, activism. Figure 1, which is taken from the report, compares Internet use by gender, with women equalling — if not surpassing — their male counterparts when it comes to accessing the web for news and information, networking and sharing their views and opinions. The report concludes that social media has the ‘potential to be an empowering and engaging tool for women, whether in social, economic, legal, political or civic arenas ... that can trigger changes and offer new approaches for addressing inequalities’.12

Realising the commercial potential

At a time when opportunities for growth are often limited, tapping into this increasingly empowered and connected customer base offers significant potential for early mover advantage and business growth.

By investing in education, businesses can foster relationships with this new customer base and their communities and help to socialise their brand. These relationships are genuinely priceless. A corporate strategy that combines philanthropic endeavours, such as educating girls and women, and draws on the power of the Internet can capitalise on the convergence of three powerful forces: literacy, social media and socio-economic development.

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, succinctly assessed the connection between female literacy and business strategy in his opening remarks at the launch of Goldman’s 10,000 Women Initiative: “We not only chase GDP around the world; we try to create it”.13

This concept of a mutually beneficial relationship is the foundation of Coca-Cola’s ambitious ‘5 by 20’ programme, an initiative that aims to create 5 million female entrepreneurs by 2020, while also building up the company’s Micro Distribution Centres (MDCs) around the world. Women are given funding to begin distributing Coca-Cola products and bolster their business skills, as well as to gain access to mentors and business networks. The women benefit from meaningful opportunities, and Coca-Cola benefits from an important boost for business advocacy and market development, as well as the chance to see through its plans to double business by 2020.

If female literacy in North Africa and other emerging markets continues to bring more women into the workforce and encourages them to connect to the Internet, then the commercial potential is especially promising. Creating content for women is crucial to realising this potential, with the Dubai School study finding that a ‘lack of relevant content for women’ has been one of the major barriers to Arab women’s social media usage. With the growing participation of women as consumers, smart businesses will look to meet this burgeoning demand.

A new force to be reckoned with Social media gives literate women a strong say in social, political and economic development. They are increasingly finding their way online, as citizens and as consumers. A sound business strategy recognises this influential audience, engaging them through social media and other online channels. Consider the massive protests in the Middle East mobilized through social media. If powerful women can dislodge governments, they can also become powerful advocates for a brand and help shape consumer choices and commercial development within their communities.

Education will continue to be a powerful force in developing countries and regions. Supporting and encouraging female literacy can maximise first-mover advantage by developing a bond between a business and the community it serves, and associating its brand with the benefits of education. Iconic brands like Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs recognise the potential of empowerment and are combining altruism and hard commercial logic to develop new markets. With some luck, more companies will join them and female literacy will be the norm, not the outlier.


1 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) - Promoting Gender Equality (http://www.unfpa.org/gender/empowerment2.htm)
2 NIC Report - Global Trends 2025 [November 2008]
3 ‘Education of women and socio-economic development’, Geeta Gandhi Kingdon (published in Reasons and Revelation: studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, volume 13), 2002
4 Amartya Sen, ‘Missing Women,’ (published in British Medical Journal, 304) 1992
5 Lawrence Summers, The Most Influential Investment, 1993
6 David Bloom, ‘Education in a Globalized World,’ published in World Economics (Vol. 7, No. 4) Oct - Dec 2006
7 Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, ‘Education of women and socio-economic development,’ 2002
8 CIA World Factbook, World Bank, World Development Indicators: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics.
9 Cole, Juan & Cole, Shahin: ‘An Arab Spring for Women: The Missing Story from the Middle East,’ Le Monde diplomatique, April 2011
10 ‘Expansion of women’s literacy by mobile phone’ programme’ (http://www.unesco.org/en/literacy/dynamic-content-single-view/news/expansion_of_womens_literacy_by_mobile_phone_programme/back/11922/cHash/29d9528978/)
11 Cole, Juan & Cole, Shahin: ‘An Arab Spring for Women: The Missing Story from the Middle East,’ Le Monde diplomatique, April 2011
12 Arab Social Media Report Issue 3, produced by the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government
13 CNNMoney “Goldman sees gold in helping women,” March 12, 2008.