It was 3:00 pm in the afternoon last Ramazan when someone called and asked me to do a translation. He said that I could charge for the work. I told him to mail it to me so that I could have a look.
What I got was a five page contract with legal terms to be translated from English to Dhivehi, and it had to be done by that night. I called up and quoted him my official price and he flipped out.
“Oh man,” he said, “you are crazy. I am doing this for a friend. Go to the kitchen. It is time to cook for breaking the fast.”
My mind raced! Would he have said something similar in the same tone to a man?
Kitchen maids step out to business and up to leadership!
I grew up with a mother who sold material and tailored to earn money. She worked from home. In many households while men are the official breadwinners, the women work from home to earn an income to make ends meet.
Today farmers in the islands are made up of 60 percent women. In other words, women in the Maldives have a long history of entrepreneurship. When I was growing up, there were a couple of ladies in trading and I saw them in the man’s world. I wonder how they felt and what kind of challenges they had. Today with Maldives advancing into the modern world, more Maldivian women have stepped out into the business world.
Globally, the 1920s were a turning point for women to move from traditional roles to modern ideas. In these years the role of women changed, with gender-defined work such as cooks, dressmakers and farm hands moving to professional and technical jobs like doctors, bankers, lawyers etc. Still today, even in the most developed countries, there are conservatives who find it hard to digest this and feel a woman’s place is at home.
The prevalent environment in Maldives is tough for a woman who wants to run a business. I am a social entrepreneur and I started out on my own in 1999. As a woman I have experienced many hurdles, and I am going to highlight here common issues enterprising women face in the Maldives.
Women entrepreneurs find it a big challenge to get people to take them seriously. Women seeking loans beyond micro-financing have difficulties obtaining funds, even with collateral. I know the case of a woman who offered collateral of her two houses to the Bank of Maldives (managed by women) some years ago and she was refused a loan. When her husband went to the Bank with the same business plan and same collateral (with mortgage rights signed over by the woman), it was accepted.
When women hold meetings, many men do not listen to the business idea a woman is selling. Horrendous suggestions such as meeting late at night and in private environments are an indication of this lack of seriousness among men. It is often seen in the light of a favor she is asking. If I am accompanied by a male to a meeting, I still find him being addressed more than me though it is my business.
Sense of guilt
My female colleagues and entrepreneurs also speak of the “guilt issues” that come into play and which limit their success. Guilt for investing time away from the family, guilt for becoming more financially secure than family and friends, guilt for earning more than a spouse and guilt for being successful.
To make it worse, husbands and partners who cannot digest the success of a woman accuse her of receiving favours. Some people (men and women, friends and family) actually think that a woman who wants to start a business is just looking for something to do as a “hobby”.
Women are trained since childhood to work behind the scenes, to not make a fuss, and to take care of others first. Girls grow up in “female” roles with housework prioritised above studies, and the notion that she will marry a good man to have a life.
The contribution of women to financial stability is treated of secondary importance especially when that money is generated at home. Women’s contribution is not documented in the national statistics either. Women in entrepreneurship struggle to improve conditions that support enterprise development at national level.
The Women Entrepreneurs Council (WEC) was initially under the umbrella of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and was dissolved three years ago without the WEC itself being notified. The move was part of a calculated change in the Executive Board to push out chamber board members, including distinguished and dedicated men committed to economic development of the country. and who supported the Wec.
The media (including Minivan News) ignored the case (with evidence) that the WEC presented, and the report did not appear in the daily newspapers or on the television. The Registrar of the Home Ministry at the time ignored the evidence. The Attorney General (on a personal level) made an aimless attempt to look into the issue that compromised women. Today the documents lie on the table of the present Chamber President who considers an internal audit of the time (with the last five years) possible but has not had the time to look at them.
The documents are in the Ministry of Home Affairs waiting for the present Registrar’s attention. Three registrars have changed since the documents were submitted and the present Registrar has promised to lend us an ear.
The WEC was just beginning to stand on its feet with a successful trial record of development and half a million Rufiya in its account, a solid development plan for four years and a potential contract with UNDP, when the Council was crippled by the Board of the time.
Earlier this year, His Excellency the Vice President listened to the story but it remains one without an end. The President’s staff have been scheduling a meeting with the leadership of the ex-WEC for the last two and half years.
Women experience sexist banter, demeaning comments and exclusionary behavior and continue to push for conditions where they can do business in a politically and socially fair environment.
Assumptions about women, such as in my introductory paragraph, view women as inferior business professionals. Expectations on pricing and wages – with the implication that women lack professionalism – are abusive.
Women tend to devalue their skills, abilities and experience more than men do. Women must value their offerings in order for customers and prospects to value them. The ability to be compensated well for the value a woman provides lies squarely on her ability to look the customer/prospect in the eye and state, with confidence, that it’s worth the price she is charging. So my fees remain… discounts come only after quotation.
Ownership and control of an enterprise by a woman is a big thing. Most women entrepreneurs are very compassionate and caring people, thus bringing complimentary value to business. While women want to express their skill and talent to the world, they should also possess the qualities of devotion, innovation and the capabilities of management and control, lessons that can be learnt from enterprising men. Women are great networkers, tenacious, and are great at relationships, so there is no hurdle too big to overcome.
Once on an interview, a producer of a VillaTV program wanted the presenter to question me about whether a woman would have time to take care of her family obligations if she was engaged outside home. In my opinion, the word obligation puts conditions on women that are interpreted by someone else. A woman should define her priorities and balance her life between work and family. This is one of the hardest challenges for a woman entrepreneur even in developed countries.
To break the ice, women have to put themselves forward and overcome a lifetime of behavioral training – a daunting task for many of us. Men remove one hat before putting on another. Work is work, play is play and family is family. Women insist on wearing all their hats at once and are determined to balance them all. When we enter into business mode, we are still mothers, wives and friends. We are easily distracted by our many other priorities and find it challenging to focus all our attention on one area at a time. Focus ladies!
To be successful as an entrepreneur a woman must be independent, humble, highly successful at personal growth and, for the most part, non-emotional. As a male colleague noted the other day, one big challenge a woman has are the other women who don’t understand her – her values and drive.
It was evident at the Validation Workshop in October 2009 held in Holiday Inn where I sat at a round table with women from the Ministry of Health trying to bring in the perspective of women from private sector into the national plans. The barrier I faced was so impenetrable that I had to get the Counsel of UN facilitator to talk to them to include some of my suggestions.
Women must be bolder and demand respect by showing their success. To receive respect, women should be respectful. To be respectful, women should work with values and rules that shows her principles such as using formal friendly language (a great way to draw the line between personal and professional relationships), staying firm and focused in discussions displaying a professional attitude, keeping meetings to working hours and if necessary stretch to early evenings but not late night hours, setting the latest reachable hour to business contacts by phone, meet in open public places or office during working hours, establish a code for no physical relationships with staff and potential business partners, learn to draw the line when people get abusive or suggestive at meetings, stop mothering when dealing with male business colleagues (sorry ladies but I observe this happening) and dressing professionally.
Women should always be upfront and transparent about their professional experience and what they have accomplished. Upon doing so, people can no longer have ignorant assumptions of women. So women out there, it takes every core of your being to stand above these who choose to talk about people, so you can walk instead with those who prefer to discuss ideas.
Aminath Arif is the Founder of SALAAM School.
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