This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 1st October, 2009
Arab women are making tremendous progress in the corporate world in a striking example of how inspired leadership can help to shape societies.
I was recently asked if, as a female professional, I had ever come up against a ‘glass ceiling’. The question intrigued me as fortunately I had not, in both my careers in the corporate and non-profit world. However, there are many women out there who have.
Women’s rights have been a debatable topic since the days of Virginia Woolfe and Huda Sha’rawi, the Egyptian feminist who broke new ground in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, the emancipation of women was one of the most controversial topics. As Woolfe put it, “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself”. Although at the time the issue was in its embryonic stage, it caused a great uproar and consequently Woolfe went down in history as one of the most influential people of her era.
Today, the debate continues. The United Nations Development Fund for Women provides us with an interesting quote: “Countries that do not fully take advantage of one half of the talent in their population are misallocating their human resources”. This is certainly an issue that we in the UAE do not face.
Fortunately, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has been at the forefront of empowerment by encouraging the youth, and particularly women, to take advantage of the many options available to them in education. In terms of university education, the figure for female university enrolment is far greater than that of their male counterparts. Arab women today fully realise the importance of their roles in society and the economy. With education increasingly available for women in all Arab countries, they have gained independence and status and entered the professional and business spheres. I see this as a striking example of how inspired leadership can affect the shape and progress of a population’s workforce.
I have noted similar progress within our government. Statistics reveal that 22.2 per cent of the Federal National Council (FNC) in the UAE is made up of women, making this the third-highest-ranking country in terms of female parliamentarians in the world. These women are among the 20 nominated members of the 40-member house. The importance of the FNC lies in its role as an advisory body, formed under the Provisional Constitution of the UAE in 1971 as a permanent component of the country’s governance structure.
Dubai’s youth, and particularly women, have also been encouraged to participate in each and every economic field. In the 1970s, women in the UAE worked predominantly in the education sector. I have gathered strong anecdotal support for this fact from conversations with my family. It is obvious that this situation has changed quite dramatically, with women now working in health, banking, telecommunications and civil aviation (in the UAE, six per cent of the workforce in this sector is female). Although the above reflects the progress professional women have made in the UAE, I am well aware that many challenges remain. The ratio of female to male professionals in the workforce is still very low. The reasons for this are predominantly rooted in cultural gender-orientated attitudes.
The lack of encouragement women receive from family members to join the working world is usually due to there being no real financial need for them to do so. In addition, some businesses are known to discriminate against hiring women, on the assumption that they are more likely to quit their jobs to start a family. Many companies do not like to offer flexible working hours, discouraging even those who would like to stay on after child birth. I also believe that there are women who are uninterested in working for private and semi-government sectors, though this issue is prevalent across both genders within the UAE.
Personal experience and conversations with Arab nationals lead me to believe that imbalances exist throughout the Middle East. With less than one third of Arab women participating in the workforce there is no question that they remain a hugely untapped resource. I will, however, highlight the fact that many of these women stay at home to nurture their children, and this is a choice that I personally have the deepest respect for. Recently, I participated in a study conducted by Dubai Government’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority focused on women’s development in the region. I noted that one area of constraint was the lack of professionally staffed daycare centres for working mothers with children. I cannot stress enough that times have changed and, with them, so have working hours. It would be very difficult for a mother to leave her newborn child for a significant part of the day unless daycare centres are provided. Legislative support from the government is certainly needed to face these challenges.
On a positive note, I would like to cite extraordinary examples of Arab women. Topping the Forbes Top 50 Arab females list is Saudi businesswoman Lubna S. Olayan, a principal of The Olayan Group and CEO of Olayan Financing Company. This inspiring woman is a major investor in the Saudi economy and Olayan Financing is consistently ranked in the top echelon of Middle Eastern companies. Clearly, Olayan’s multi-faceted personality has seen her to be active in the World Economic Forum, serving on both its Arab Business Council and Women’s Leadership Initiative. Although such success stories may be rare, they are likely to become more common now that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz recently appointed the first female minister to his council.
Breaking through the glass ceiling may sometimes prove difficult for women, but I believe Woolfe and Sha’rawi are smiling as a result of the recent progress Arab women have made.