The following is cross posted from Intel’s Corporate Social Responsibility blog.
The Arab Spring has set into motion an awakening….an opportunity that hasn’t been seen historically by women in North Africa and the Middle East. Women feel more empowered than ever to change their circumstances, change their status and change their communities. I personally witnessed the “stirrings” during a recent opportunity in Morocco to represent Intel as a Corporate Ambassador and speak to a conference of numerous business women about leveraging social media to grow their businesses.
Intel is actively involved in programs to empower girls and women. For over 40 years, Intel has been creating technologies that advance the way people live, work and learn. Intel believes that to foster innovation and drive economic growth, everyone, especially girls and women, need to be enabled with education, employment and entrepreneurial skills. It is evidence based that improving women’s economic status produces positive outcomes for society. Unfortunately, technology has been underused in unlocking women’s economic opportunities. My recent trip to Morocco was a chance to shrink that digital divide.
Morocco is an interesting blend of old and new. On the Atlantic Ocean, a brand new modern mall (The Moroccan Mall) recently opened with Jennifer Lopez headlining, while a short distance away shop keepers are selling clothing and produce at the local Souk. Over half of the population of 30 million people (the size of California or Canada), are Internet users, with women rising to 33.5% of all users. However, there are existing barriers with 61.7% women being illiterate and 15% of the population living below the poverty line. In recent years significant measures have been taken to improve the status of women in Morocco. Efforts to reduce gender inequality within the legal system and laws to improve a women’s personal status have provided new equality opportunities. In 1995 revisions to Morocco’s commercial code provided women with the right to start a business and enter into a contract of employment without a husband’s authorization. On top of the commercial code, recent legislation now allows for women to have control over their property and money, plus eliminated a wife’s obligation to obey her husband. Despite the legislation, women owned business represent only 0.8% of the total female workforce.
I must make an important note based upon the misperception that the women’s businesses are along the genre of hand-made crafts – quite the contrary. The businesses included a bottled water company, a coffee shop, an advertising agency, and a coffee pod distributor. We even had a young woman entrepreneur, Karima El Aji, speak about her start-up Internet business – Cadolik. Most of the businesses have had success within Morocco and they now want to leverage social media to utilize e-commerce and expand their reach to an international audience. I realized that Morocco is at the beginning stages of not only social media, but the internet too, meaning that they have the challenge and benefit of starting a total digital experience all at once. It is an opportunity for them to create a truly integrated experience along with a strong device agnostic approach (mobile is BIG in the region). Unlike the U.S., much of the online presence will be promotional & informational vs. transactional. They need to devise plans to drive online traffic to brick & mortar locations – a vastly different model from what we have here in the U.S.
After 3 days, the women walked away excited to put their new knowledge to work and hungry to learn more. I realized there is a huge opportunity to help women in this region leverage online technologies effectively. While the opportunity is significant, I was reminded by the women that challenges still remain. Morocco is not a democracy, so freedom of speech is limited; social media dangles some potentially dangerous territory in front of them. In addition, women are concerned that more extreme Islamic rule across the region will increase its influence in Morocco and force women’s rights to regress. Time will tell. But the seeds of changes have been planted. My hope is that these seeds can be sown by the continued efforts of companies like Intel, NGOs such as Vital Voices, and initiatives of the U.S. State department. Thanks to social media, I plan to remain in contact with my new Morocco businesswomen colleagues and help them along the journey.