While huge strides have been made towards achieve equality at work, there were many depressing signs in 2017 that the level of sexism in business remains high.
From revelations about the BBC gender pay gap to claims of sexual assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it seems women are still having to work harder and overcome more hurdles than their male counterparts.
Amanda Perry, a British expatriate living in Dubai for over 10 years, was already running a successful business helping entrepreneurs with the legalities of setting up a business in the UAE when she noticed a gap in the market for a female-only business accelerator. Amanda, 42, says her clients were finding it hard to set up businesses because of a lack of support.
“I realised that instead of just helping clients with the legal aspects of business set-up, what female entrepreneurs needed was a holistic system in place to assist them on a continued basis,” she says.
Along with her business partner, Zag Asghar, Amanda set up Vitality, an enterprise offering business advice and support purely to female business owners.
Amanda says what sets them apart from their competitors is their long-term assistance, networking and access to specialists. Her company and clients sign up to a 12-month commitment to work together.
Amanda is convinced this combination of support and accountability to someone is the reason for Vitality’s success so far. “So many clients have said that this intensive support is the reason they are able to keep going with their ideas,” she says.
In April this year, a study published by Crunchbase, the data collection company, reported that only 17 per cent of startups have a female founder. When compared to earlier data, this appears to show a plateau, with no increase over the last five years. In the UAE, conditions for female entrepreneurship are favourable, but they still lag behind male rates of business ownership.
Amanda and her partner are out to change this and channel the natural side effects of women working together into a creating successful businesses. Amanda says: "Women work differently to men. They are more collaborative and supportive of each other in business.
“We want to harness this innate teamwork to help female entrepreneurs succeed.”
There are charges for Vitality’s services, but they try to structure them in such a way that it doesn’t deter would-be entrepreneurs. Applying a sliding-scale approach allows businesses to get off the ground without being charged heavy fees in the early stages.
“Once our clients start to see an increase in turnover, the fees increase accordingly up to a fixed level,” she says.
“We only take on clients that we feel have a strong chance of success as we’re also invested in their business.
“If they don’t make money, we don’t get paid.”
Vitality is currently working with 11 female-led businesses, both start-ups and more established companies, as well as foreign companies branching out to the UAE. They project that they will have 25-30 entrepreneurs in residence by the end of the first quarter of 2018.
At full capacity they have space for 50 clients. But finding the right premises was much more difficult than the founders anticipated.
“We needed to make sure we had space for all the specialist services we are bringing together under one roof and for our clients to come in and work with us,” Amanda says.
The team also have a play area on site where kids can be entertained if childcare falls through. While being clear about the fact they are not a substitute for regular childcare, Amanda takes a pragmatic approach. “We’ve made provision for the times when there’s a clash between being a mum and being an entrepreneur,” she says.
“We want to make this work for women, as opposed to making women fit into a corporate box. The two can coexist.”
Gender balance in the workplace is a hot topic right now in the UAE, with the creation of a Gender Balance council and backing from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the recent launch of the Gender Balance guide.
But achieving this balance can be difficult.
Veronique Ademar, executive coach and partner at Dubai-based career development and executive coaching practice The Pathway Project, points out that while both sexes can benefit from mentoring, it's more often women that can suffer from self-doubt and who can therefore gain a lot from coaching.
“As women, we usually have to juggle many things at the same time and on top of that we are constantly ‘eaten up’ by self-doubt and asking ourselves, ‘am I good enough?’, ‘can I really do this?’,” she says. “Mentoring will help [women] with their decision-making process and reduce their feeling of isolation, helping to avoid the many pitfalls of having a newly established business.”
Do women really need this extra help? “Starting a business is a lonely and often isolating experience, this is the same for men and women. But women are often more likely to reach out for help unlike their male counterparts. We’re choosing to focus on women as this is where I feel we can make the most the difference,” Amanda says.