How businesswomen in the UAE start out and succeed in a male-dominated market


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There has never been a better time to be a female entrepreneur in the UAE.

In fact, women now make up nearly half of the UAE’s SME sector.

That being said, in many ways – and in many industries – a strong institutional bias towards men is still in place.

But that isn’t stopping female entrepreneurs. In fact, they are starting successful businesses and driving change every day by embracing:

  • Networking
  • Continuous learning
  • Support for other women
  • Confidence building

Here’s how you can start out and succeed in a male-dominated market.

Develop your networks

Networking in Dubai is one of the easiest and most effective ways for women to become known in their industry and make valuable new contacts.

‘Networking opportunities in Dubai are extensive,’ says Heather Henyon, founder and director of the Women’s Angel Investor Network (WAIN). Henyon has been in Dubai for over 10 years and advises women to ‘pursue high quality networking’.

How to approach ‘high quality networking’ in Dubai

With so many networking events to choose from, it is essential that you research which events are right for you.

Two popular female networking communities are Ellevate Network and Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC), but a wide variety of mixed networking events can be explored at meetup. Also, ask your contacts which networking events they would recommend.

Before you attend any networking event:

  • Be clear on your goals. Where do you want to get to and how can others help you get there? Being clear on why you are doing what you’re doing will help you network with the right people in the right way.
  • Show an interest in helping others. It shouldn’t be all about you and what you want from the relationship. Ask yourself, how can I help others? Networking is about the exchange of knowledge and information, with a view to converting that into financial reward where possible.
  • Follow up after the event. As with all forms of lead generation, you must nurture the relationship to benefit from it. Follow up on any actions you’ve agreed to and check in with people who made a real impression.

Remember, with around 85% of the entire population of the UAE consisting of expatriates, everyone is from somewhere else and they are all looking for opportunities to connect and develop – just like you.

Never stop learning new skills

Successful people never stand still when it comes to learning new skills and developing existing ones.

By becoming an aggressive life-long learner, you will not only be able to do your job better but you will demand greater respect from others operating in your market – whether they are male or female.

Take inspiration from some of the world’s leading female business leaders.

Christine Lagarde, for example, MD of the International Monetary Fund from 2011 to September 2019, and about to become President of the European Central Bank. She was ranked number three on Forbes ‘World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’ list in 2018.

Then there is the truly inspirational Nicola Mendelsohn, Vice President of Facebook EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa). Her amazing record includes building a ‘women in leadership’ development programme across the EMEA region.

How to become a life-long learner:

  • Set your alarm 30 mins earlier and read. Rather than rushing out of the door, allow yourself some ‘you time’ first thing in the morning. Sit down, sip coffee and use this time as an opportunity to seek out new information.
  • Take advantage of every relevant seminar and continuing education class you can.
  • Take an online or weekend/evening course in something you’re passionate about that is entirely unrelated to your job to exercise your brain in different ways.
  • Be committed to learning. Yes, it takes time, discipline and focus but the rewards are happiness, mental agility, confidence and expertise – all of which will make you invaluable to your team.
  • Teach others. A great way to consolidate what you’ve learned is to help and train others.
  • Support other women. This one seems obvious, but unfortunately many of us are unaware of our own gender bias. Some female entrepreneurs can be unnecessarily aggressive or hard towards other female leaders and women in the workplace.

Women are still largely underrepresented in business so it’s so important that we support each other. Take a lead from Souad Benkredda, Head of Financial Markets and MD of the MENA region at Standard Chartered Bank. To redress the existing gender imbalance she has fought for change, with the result that 80% of graduates hired into Financial Markets in the UAE since 2017 have been female.

How to support women in business

Being nice is not a weakness. Women who treat others fairly and ethically tend to be happier and more productive, as well as having happier and more productive teams.

To support women in business, you can:

  • Champion other women’s success. Think of a fellow businesswoman’s success as a win for all women. We should all become supporters of one another.
  • Ask other women about their journey to success. We can, and should, develop our own skills by looking to others.
  • Publicly acknowledge female co-workers in meetings and highlight their successes.
  • Get active in women’s associations, which provide fantastic opportunities for mentorship and business networking.


Cultivate confidence

Confidence in business is so important, especially for women in male-dominated markets.

It’s one thing to say ‘be assertive’ but what practical steps can be taken?

Here are some approaches to become more confident as a female entrepreneur:

  • Surround yourself with smart, positive people. Spending time with positive women and men is an invaluable confidence booster, and having a solid support network will encourage you to try new things and be less afraid of failure.
  • Knowledge is power. Upskilling increases your value and will empower you to make decisions and take action. Skills such as public speaking, negotiation and conflict resolution are all excellent confidence building tools.
  • Step outside of your comfort zone. Go and do something completely different. Something that scares you. It could be a presentation at a conference or a skydive. Whatever it is, you’ll feel so much more confident and empowered once you’ve done it.

It’s time to make your mark

Businesswomen in the UAE are inspiring women around the world to take an entrepreneurial leap and help contribute toward shaping the future of global business.

Your contribution counts. After all, societies cannot afford to lose out on the skills, ideas and perspectives of half of humanity. Over to you…

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