Cultural barriers hinder women’s growth in entrepreneurship 


ACCOUNTING for half of the Muslim population worldwide and expected to make up one-sixth of the global population by 2060, Muslim women have a key role to play in building business partnership — fostering collaboration in business trade and investment.

Women’s role in serving sustainable development should not be underestimated. Though there are hindered participation in the labour market, society apostles are meeting key sustainable development goals including global goal 5 (to achieve gender equality), goal 8 (to promote full adoptive employment, a decent work for all), goal 2 (food security), goal 3 (ensuring health) and goal on reducing equality.

According to the report by the United Nations (UN) secretary general, a high-level panel of women’s economic outlets accompanied by one more woman in senior management or corporate court is associated with eight to 13 basic points of higher return on assets. There are an estimated 274 million women involved in business start-ups globally, along with an additional 139 million women who own or manage established businesses.

Due to differing job opportunities provided by state welfare systems, for instance, women in Europe have some of the lowest rates in entrepreneurship, while in contrast, the Middle East and South Africa have much higher rates in women entrepreneurship.

Explaining on women entrepreneurs, Brunei Youth Council (BYC) president and Green Brunei community engagement director Khairunnisa Ash’ari said areas of entrepreneurship are not gender specific in her country.

“Around 55% of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Brunei are owned by women. There are various opportunities for women to get support. For instance, there is the Darussalam Enterprise which provides a one-stop centre for training and resources for start-ups, including affordable rental space.

“Brunei’s Islamic financial institutions also provide support for single mothers specifically. There are also several platforms and NGOs, such as the Brunei Womenpreneur Network and the Young Entrepreneurs Association Brunei, which are both led by young women, as well as the Brunei Women Business Council,” she said in her talk on “Women and Social Impact — The Next Frontier of Growth for the Virtual 2022 Global Muslim Business Forum (GMBF)” held in Kuala Lumpur recently. 

In addition, she said women in Brunei have full access to participate in economic building. 

The increase in female business leaders underline the country’s commitment towards women empowerment and equity — which is also in line with the country’s social development agenda under Brunei Vision 2025.

“There is equal access to opportunity and facilities regardless of gender, age or race. Statistically, women are contributing the most in terms of education.

“Although on paper there is no policy that limits women from venturing into business, in reality, women still face challenges and barriers when it comes to entering male-dominated industries.

“Harassment towards women is still a prevalent issue and often not talked about. Another challenge for Brunei is the lack of gender data to monitor discriminatory policies.

“I hope to see more data supporting gender comparison which could give stronger support towards addressing harassment to ensure safe space for all individuals to contribute to the economy,” she added.

However, Khairunnisa highlighted that there was an increased trend in doing business through online platforms among young female entrepreneurs.

“We do see the growth of young female entrepreneurs, for example in the modest fashion industry. We see a trend among women graduates who have ventured into this industry, even more during the pandemic when businesses benefited from utilising online platforms. 

“Women’s roles in different industries, especially food and beverage (F&B), have increased but there are still limitations for women in male-dominated industries, even when there are no specific policies creating the barrier,” she noted.

On how business leaders can best advocate for young female entrepreneurs, Khairunnisa opined that in the Brunei community, women’s support for each other is very strong.

“Besides business organisations, many NGOs are led by women — this trend in Brunei is very encouraging. However, there are still limitations and cultural barriers in terms of women holding leadership positions.

“When it comes to advocating for policy, volunteering and community effort, we see a lot of women; but when it comes to top positions in a country, we still see that the space is mainly for male candidates,” she said.

Commenting on women’s societal impacts, Asian Solidarity Economy Council (ASEC) chairperson and Bina Swadaya Foundation, Indonesia board member Dr Eri Trinurini-Adhi said women accounted for 60% from 99.8% among the MSMEs, which also contributed 97% of the workforce in Indonesia.

“On the economic front, though they are mostly informal, women contributed to 61% of the GDP in Indonesia in both the formal and informal sectors. The informal sector also contributes in terms of providing job opportunities where the government cannot provide to all jobseekers.

“However, most women have fewer capital assets than men such as land grants and vehicle certificates, which are still under the husbands’ names, hence without the husbands’ support, they cannot access the bank account. This is one of the cultural barriers that women face.

“However, based on data from the Global Development Centre, women have more savings than men — not only in banks, but also savings at home, which means women are putting in more effort to save for the family,” she said.

Eri highlighted that as women give more impact towards social development despite various barriers; she suggested an inclusive ecosystem for the MSME women entrepreneurs.

“The problem is the Indonesian government is making it a standard one policy for all, which does not work particularly well for them. We need a customised policy if we want to reach everyone. 

“In order to provide an inclusive ecosystem, all stakeholders need to participate. For instance, the government can try to adjust the policy that can reach the micro enterprises, instead of making it a one-policy-fits-all, while social enterprises can provide training and mentoring for women’s groups in rural areas,” she further explained.

Eri added that social enterprises can play an important role as a catalyst sector or bridging the informal sector with the formal.

Like Brunei, she said although the law does not discriminate against female entrepreneurs, there are small cultural barriers. 

“In a heterogeneous community, women will get less access than men because the leadership and organisation are mostly led by male. 

“We should encourage women’s capacity building. From my experience, women learn faster — so we have to build women’s capacity to build self-confidence in facing a heterogeneous ecosystem,” she concluded during the talk session.