Merin Guthrie is a girl's girl. Raised to be strong and independent, she grew up in a family filled with unapologetically opinionated, self-assured women, including three grandmothers and her mother. From age 12 she attended an all-female boarding school where she formed incredible relationships, and was never hindered by the world of “man.”
Upon entering the real world for college, Guthrie was wondering, “Why aren’t more people focused on women, and what women need, and empowering women?”
Having such an absence of men for the better part of her young life was incredibly influential for Guthrie. It's not that she thought of men as the bad guys, she just didn’t see herself in the context of a man at all. To illustrate her point, Guthrie brought up the point that Katie Ledecky in the 2016 Olympics was always referred to as the “female Michael Phelps,” but never as her own superior self as an athlete.
Merin Guthrie, Founder and CEO of Kit.
Photo Credit: Samira Bouaou
Along with this problem, Guthrie also became aware of how poorly women’s clothes are made these days. She started wearing her grandmothers’ old vintage dresses that still had amazing quality and fit her so much better than anything she could buy at a store. Guthrie’s own boss couldn’t see how well she performed at a meeting because she was so uncomfortable in her clothes and believed that everyone in the meeting was focused on how poorly they fit.
When it comes to women's clothing, fit is a huge problem. In fact, industry wide--60% of all women’s wear designers are men. How can they possibly be expected to know what will fit us?
One thing was for sure, Guthrie wanted to focus on women and women alone. She based her line on the needs of her female customer service manager, also is a mom with two kids under the age of three. While Guthrie is absolutely not opposed to men, she believes a woman in the customer service job is a much better fit than a man. To wit, a man can’t answer questions about what dress is right for breastfeeding, and how a bust size should fit. The customer service has to fit the demographics, which is what helps make this company so innovative and inspiring.
According to Guthrie, the reason women’s clothes don’t fit well is that patterns are made two-dimensionally, but women have three-dimensional bodies. To address this issue, Guthrie had a long conversation with a pattern maker who made clothes yet still couldn’t find anything that fits. They agreed that they had to throw out the idea of a one-size-fits-all sizing system; it just doesn’t work. Instead of sizing, the company gets information about people’s bodies to make the clothes specifically fit that person.
All Kit clothes are all made after the point of purchase, and because the manufacturing is in-house, the company's seamstresses work with customer service to make everything customizable. Customers who have dealt with one of the workers before will just email whoever they’ve worked with instead of going back to the website; there’s a relationship built there. Furthermore, the company welcomes and evolves with customer feedback.
The reason behind Kit's success, to be sure, is Guthrie's focus on her consumer, rather than on scaling quickly for a quick buck. Instead, she’s focused on keeping the customers happy and producing quality products.
Guthrie (left) and a friend.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kit
“We wanted customer service to be like having a really stylish good friend.”
By getting clothing through Kit, customers are guaranteed a one-of-a-kind service experience along with quality items that actually fit. Although Guthrie came from a background that didn’t include fashion, she was able to think outside the box, and inspire an entire industry by introducing a clothing line that women didn't even know they needed.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.