Women have crucial role to play in shaping Gulf’s future
Since 2000, the proportion of women in the workforce has risen rapidly, from roughly a third to around half in the UAE and Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, it is lower, but growing fast. Standing at 22 percent, or one million Saudi nationals, according to official statistics, it has increased by almost a quarter in just the past three years. The changes have come thanks to state investment in education over the past three decades, which has dramatically expanded the pool of highly qualified female graduates eager to forge their own careers.
High-profile government initiatives aimed at harnessing female talent and pursuing international gender equality goals have also played a role in helping to change attitudes toward women who want to work outside of the home, and have increased the opportunities available to them. Last year, the business website Forbes published a list of the top 100 Arab businesswomen, featuring many from the Gulf. It proved that, over the past few decades, women have not simply smashed the glass ceiling in business, but are now a permanent presence in boardrooms across the region.
Change is happening fastest in Saudi Arabia. Over the past year, the Kingdom has launched a concerted drive to make it easier for women to work, rolling out a succession of headline-grabbing reforms and initiatives. They can now set up their own business without permission from their guardian, and will soon be able to drive. New jobs are being opened up to women in sectors that have traditionally been male-dominated, from the tourism industry to border control, and the military. And a series of high-profile appointments have put women at the head of some of the Kingdom’s most critical financial institutions, including the Tadawul stock exchange and several banks.
The dividend could be significant for both society and the wider economy. Global studies have shown that getting women into work increases household income, and the knock-on effect of increased spending helps the wider economy grow. One model created by the global consulting firm McKinsey suggested that gender parity could contribute an extra $600 billion per annum to regional GDP. Leading businesses also report improvements in innovation, creativity and productivity when they increase the number of women workers.
Gulf governments have heard this message loud and clear. Mobilizing the potential of women is a critical part of their solution to the need to reduce their economies’ dependency on foreign workers and oil revenue.
If the economic forecasters want some positive signs of success, they need look no further than the growing number of women joining the workforce throughout the region and thriving at every level.
However, for these reforms to work and benefit the majority of women in society, social barriers will need to be addressed. In a new report to mark International Women’s Day, the International Labor Organization warned that such obstacles could slow the much-needed growth of women entering the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa. So long as women are expected to take on the majority of household responsibilities and family care, and so long as strict restrictions over interaction between men and women persist, their opportunities to pursue paid work outside of the home will always be more limited, however well-educated and skilled they may be.
As one Gulf businesswoman told me recently, cultural and social norms mean that family still comes before career in the Gulf, and employers are wary of hiring individuals part-time, or who want flexible hours to fit around their family. This means that governments, businesses and societies will need to work together, combining public policy changes — particularly improving parental leave and childcare, and addressing the gender wage gap — with social changes, such as encouraging men and other family members to play a greater role in household chores and childcare.
Technology will also be part of the solution. It is already opening up new pathways for women who want to balance work with family commitments and social traditions. Improvements in internet technology have made remote working much easier over the past decade. One businesswoman who pioneered this approach is Nour Al-Hassan, CEO of Dubai-based Tarjama translation agency. Ninety percent of her employees are women and many work from home, setting their own schedules around their family duties. The flexibility works for both the business and employer. Al-Hassan says the “work from home” model is becoming more widespread in the region, and believes it is something more businesses should try.
Internet technology will also help more Gulf women start their own online businesses. Many are already thriving in the tech start-up world. Mai Medhat, CEO and co-founder of events management app Eventtus, and Mona Ataya, who is behind the online shopping site for mothers and children, Mumzworld, are just two of the large number of female tech entrepreneurs enjoying considerable success in the UAE.
Women are famous for being great multitaskers, excellent organizers and wise with money. These are not just useful skills for the home, but also for business and, over the next few years, it will be women like these who will help drive regional economies as they transition away from oil. If the economic forecasters want some positive signs of future success, they need look no further.
- Alison Baily is an international affairs analyst, specializing in the Middle East and cultural issues. She currently works for the British Council, the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the British Council. Twitter: @AlisonBaily
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view