The Cambodia Women Entrepreneurs Association has grown to 150 members since it started last year. As the only representative of women in the private sector, the CWEA connects and trains women in business, a field still dominated by men. Seng Takakneary, president of the association, sat down with the Post’s Laura Ma to discuss women’s presence in Cambodian business.
Why did you start the CWEA?
Women in private sectors, especially micro, small and medium enterprises, still have a hard time in the business world. We are the platform for women to voice issues and concerns to. We then compile those issues to bring them to the government.
We didn’t have this kind of representation before. Women had not a single voice at the government level, except for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. But there was no private sector representative.
How do you go about assisting these entrepreneurs?
There are many issues in running SMEs. They need support from the government, technical assistance, infrastructure. We bring in professionals to deliver courses on the logistics of starting a business. The CWEA plays a very important role by facilitating all kinds of business requirements and capacity building.
The CWEA also meets with delegations to present opportunities for other countries to support Cambodian women entrepreneurs. Last year, I was honoured to receive Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, to share our concerns and to look for ways to strengthen women empowerment with female entrepreneur leaders.
Why do women have a harder time as entrepreneurs?
Due to cultural aspects. Women have a lot of responsibilities, work and family combined, but less income. Because of this, they have less time to learn and network. Especially for women without higher education, it’s important for the CWEA to give them access to business information and knowledge. We invite successful women business owners to share their experiences at workshops so other members can learn.
What is the difference in the difficulties male and female entrepreneurs face?
It is harder for women because we are perceived as less capable in business. We don’t want to fight with men, just prove we can also lead and own businesses. Society hasn’t reached that level of acceptance yet. Also, government officials are used to dealing with businessmen. Men have an easier time in resolving issues they bring to officials. Men still have an advantage opening businesses.
What presence do women have in business?
As of 2011, 65 per cent of Cambodia’s SMEs were owned by women. The single largest industry that over 30 per cent of CWEA members are in is the food and beverage industry. For large businesses, I think only one or two per cent are run by women. Women are reaching middle management levels, but they are not yet at the top level.
How does CWEA influence the aspirations of young women?
We have activities and public speaking events that they can attend. We show them how women can be entrepreneurs. We want to give a girl a picture of how her future will look if she becomes an entrepreneur and what kind of preparations are needed.
They can have role models to look up to. Expectations from parents have also grown. Parents now have equal expectations of success from their daughters and sons.
How big is the gender gap in Cambodia’s business world?
Gender equality in Cambodia still lags behind other countries, and women in business here still have a harder time than those in the United States and the United Kingdom. The glass ceiling is still high and we haven’t broken it yet. We don’t have enough numbers yet to break the glass ceiling. We still have a few more decades of struggle.
How would you help fix that gender gap?
It is an easy question, but difficult to answer. Through education, training and motivation, we find as many possible ways to help women as we can. It is hard to narrow that gap, but at least the CWEA can vouch for women’s ability to other ASEAN countries.
If a new office from another country opens in Cambodia, they know to find the CWEA to introduce them to the talent and business connections they want. Women’s economic power is the backbone of the society. Women’s presence in the private sector is improving. It’s not growing as fast as I would like it to but we are achieving that step by step.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.