Navigating the gender gap in a changing Kazakhstan 

Despite gender discrimination in the workplace and limited opportunities for women to be promoted to executive positions, Kazakhstan’s entrepreneurs are demonstrating an unwavering commitment to achieving their goals. 

Female entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan are more concerned about personal and financial matters than external factors when starting or running a business, according to a survey conducted by Emerging Europe under the She’s Next Empowered by Visa initiative.  

Fear of business failure and financial impact were major concerns, but balancing personal and professional lives, along with pressure to combine roles as business owners, mothers, and wives, were also significant challenges.  

Kazakh entrepreneurs identified hard work, self-discipline, and motivation/initiative as their top three strengths. Other attributes such as having a positive attitude towards work and people, curiosity and continuously keeping up with industry trends, were also mentioned in a series of in-depth interviews.  

Searching for a work-life balance 

Kazakh female entrepreneurs are more worried about personal and financial matters than external factors when it comes to starting or running a business. Specifically, they worry about having too much work and little time for rest (26 per cent), fear of business failure (25.7 per cent), and the financial (negative) impact of starting a business (22 per cent).  

Many entrepreneurs (17 per cent) worry about neglecting their family and children, indicating a concern for work-life balance. Moreover, responsibility for the well-being of others (15 per cent) is a concern for some of them, highlighting the ethical and social obligations that come with running a business. 

A smaller percentage of respondents are worried that their future will become more unpredictable (11 per cent), that they will collect debts on which they cannot pay (10 per cent) and that they will not find suitable workers (nine per cent).   

During our in-depth interviews, female entrepreneurs emphasized that balancing their personal and professional lives was a main concern. An SME executive noted: “there is a problem that often there is no demand from women to become a leader. Not that they are limited in possibilities – they just don’t want it. They feel like they are likely to have problems with balancing their personal life and being a leader.”  

This sentiment is echoed by a business owner who noted that, “the issue of balancing between business and family is the most important [concern]. Most women do business as a whim – in their free time.” 

Women are expected to be caregivers and nurturers, and this can often conflict with the demands of a career. “There is patriarchy, and this is the biggest deterrent [to women’s success in doing business],” she added.  

However, as one SME executive stated: “life is not about balance – sometimes you may pay attention more to one area than another.” Female entrepreneurs may feel pressure to achieve a perfect balance between work and home life, but this may not always be possible. Sometimes, they may need to prioritise one aspect of their life over another.  

Another SME founder noted, “the main challenge is to combine the roles of business owner, mother and wife.”  

Financial concerns and responsibility for the welfare of employees were also significant issues, particularly during the early stages of their ventures. One business owner said: “In the beginning, during the start of the business, there were serious concerns about the financial situation – if I would be able to make ends meet. Also, I felt responsible for the welfare of workers.”   

Finally, women may also face personal concerns that impact their ability to succeed in business. As an SME executive mentioned, “at some point I had to move to another city in Kazakhstan, leaving my kids and husband in my home city. It was a hard decision, but I don’t regret it.”  

A male-dominated environment  

Several respondents revealed that Kazakhstan’s cultural environment is still largely male-dominated, particularly in the realm of business. One SME executive noted: “It is not a strong point to be a woman in our business in my country. Infrastructure development is a man’s world, but I do see more and more women.”  

Another interviewee, a large company manager, stated: “Business is still a men-dominated domain. More traditional societies tend to impose gender gaps that are visible in leadership and management positions.”  

While some female entrepreneurs felt that they had not personally experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, others pointed to the existence of gender pay gaps and limited opportunities for women to be promoted to executive positions.  

One SME manager noted: “There is a cultural dimension almost unseen that when a board – mainly composed by older men – are choosing between a man and a woman for a top executive position, they will choose the man.”  

Another start-up founder highlighted that, “women are 70 per cent more educated than men but we still face a gap in salary or having a voice or having management roles.”  

An SME manager added: “Although women are now in business and Kazakhstan is very different from [other] Central Asian countries, we mostly have only men [in executive positions], and women only hold social positions, not executive ones.” In response to this issue, the government has proposed the implementation of 30 per cent quotas for women in executive positions. 

Moreover, an SME founder discussed gender biases and the challenges of being a young woman in business. She said that working with men of the past generation is sometimes challenging because there is a distrust a priori. “I try not to make an emphasis on my gender and always try to stop the use of ‘young woman’,” she said.   

In addition, several respondents highlighted the importance of female leadership, both in terms of promoting gender equality and fostering innovation. One start-up founder emphasized that, “in my generation, it is more usual to have female leaders and entrepreneurs. Fifteen years ago, it was challenging, although not impossible.”  

Overall, respondents felt that the environment for Kazakhstan’s female entrepreneurship is supportive, with few constraints on women starting and leading businesses. One SME marketing manager stated: “I don’t see any constraints for female entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan.”   

However, respondents also noted that there are still stereotypes and misconceptions about the types of businesses women should be involved in, with one founder noting that, “there is a profile of female entrepreneur in Kazakhstan that should be changed – it is believed that they are usually involved only in small business.”  

Leveraging strengths to achieve success 

Kazakh entrepreneurs have managed to conquer obstacles and attain success by recognising and leveraging their individual and business-related strengths.  

The top three strengths identified by the respondents are hard work, self-discipline, and motivation/initiative, with 36.3 per cent, 34.7 per cent, and 34.7 per cent, respectively.  

Creative thinking and the willingness to take risks are also identified as strengths, but with lower percentages (20 per cent and 18.7 per cent, respectively). Persistence, the desire for training, confidence, determination, and the ability to establish ties are also identified as strengths ranging from six per cent to 17.7 per cent. 

In the in-depth interviews, other attributes were mentioned by entrepreneurs. One SME executive highlighted the importance of having a positive attitude towards work and people. “I like what I am doing. I like my job, and I love people. I can establish good relations and have a good eye for finding experts. Moreover, there are no stupid people, never be arrogant,” she said. 

Another large company manager stressed curiosity and continuously keeping up with industry trends as her strength. She stated: “[I am] looking around for new models, products, new practices, and understanding if it is possible to bring them to the region.”  

An SME founder mentioned her “life energy” as a particular force referring to optimism and always keeping a positive outlook. “Do not dwell on the problems,” she said.   

One start-up founder emphasized the importance of thinking outside the box, being diverse, and flexible, stating, “I am used to learning fast due to the diversity of my clients – I need in-depth expertise to advise my clients.”  

Another start-up CEO highlighted her strengths in problem-solving and her never-give-up attitude. “Unless you are in prison or dead, you can solve anything,” she noted.  

Another SME executive emphasized the importance of persistence, resilience, and hard work, stating, “Persist and make everything despite challenges.” She also added: “Focus on the target,” highlighting the importance of having a strong work ethic in the face of challenges. 

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