ABU DHABI: Women around the globe are still facing a number of challenges that stand in way of the world diversifying a panel of experts said at the second day of the Milken institute’s 2020 Middle East and Africa Summit in Abu Dhabi.
But the panel of experts discussing “How to Boost the Global Economy? Just Add Women,” said for the diversification to happen, required an end to violence and discrimination against women, adding that one-third of all women had been sexually assaulted worldwide.
In the United States, one in six women can expect to be raped or be victim to an attempted rape during her life, members of the panel said, adding that for every 1,000 rapes in the US, 995 perpetrators will manage to avoid any form of jail time.
“We have to address the impunity that goes along with that,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Rape worldwide costs $4.5 bln a year to our economies.”
And she said there was a need for governments to change their laws, ratifying a series of conventions protecting domestic and migrant workers.
Kennedy said there was also a need for other conventions offering such things as equal protection regarding working conditions’ safety, remuneration, and social security protection as well as access to training, and a minimum age of employment, and maternity protection.
“The government should mandate pay equity and equal pay,” Kennedy explained. “It should mandate that a certain number of women be on every board of a public company. A minimum of three is very important.”
She said governments needed to ensure women have access to land ownership, an ability to open and manage their own bank accounts, ensure mandatory education, and address other legal impediments to women in the workforce.
“Corporations themselves should commit to pay equity and equal pay, to enforce family leave for both men and women, and that there is mentorship,” she added. “They should tie bonuses for hiring women and underrepresented minorities, placing them in leadership in the C-suite and career paths, and have childcare on site.”
Elsewhere Kennedy said the investment industry was another hurdle, controlling - to date - $70 trillion in asset management, of which only 1.7 percent is controlled by women and the underrepresented minorities.
“So unless we address that issue, everything else we do is going to be for nothing,” she said. “We have to have more women in control if we’re really going to make a difference on these issues. Women also need to support one another, and we need to advocate for ourselves, we don’t know how to do that.”
Moderator Baria Alamuddin, director of the International Communication Experts and editor-in-chief of Media Services Syndicate, said she agreed with the need for effective mentorship.
She is writing a book on women in Saudi Arabia which involved her interviewing 2,300 women and girls in remote areas of the Kingdom.
The Lebanese-British political journalist said the Arab world tended to look at the “good part of things”.
“We want to look for answers, and not the history,” she said. “But I cannot be prouder of what Arab women are doing, especially Lebanese women today who are on the streets, and the girls in Iraq looking for that democracy, for freedom and for human rights.”
But she said she was surprised to find in Saudi Arabia during interviews with girls as young as 13 and women as old as 112, a lack of mentorship.
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“Their ideal falls to the mother or the father,” she said. “There are hardly any figures they can think of.”
But she said with women supporting each other, “we are getting there, and women are becoming more mature – men and women are one and the same, and if we don’t do it together, development won’t happen in our nations.”
Penny Abeywardena, commissioner for International Affairs at the Mayor’s Office in New York City, explained how her city was focusing on issues of climate change, women’s economic empowerment and gender equity, given the power it has.
“Over the last few years, we showed the power of cities and how we can move certain policies,” she said.
“New York City became the third city in the US that mandated parental leave, although it is not mandated by the federal government. These things change because women are in decision-making roles. We need to speak up and influence these things coming together.”
She said other work focused on supporting women in their careers and jobs as American policy infrastructure had not changed since the 1950s.
“Now, women make up over half of our workforce, but we don’t have childcare,” she said. “There just is no support for us to thrive and really succeed in the workforce. So we are creating spaces for young children and that really benefits working mothers – these are the ways cities in the US, when federal policy isn’t matching our needs, can push the boundaries.”
As an Emirati woman, Lamees Hamdan, former curator of the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, also struggled in her own country, the UAE, to secure a small loan to kickstart her own beauty business, Shiffa, in 2004.
“Women in the workforce is very relevant to me because I’m a minority in a minority, as Emiratis are 11 percent of the population in our country,” she said.
“I went to get a loan with a very good recommendation, and everyone declined. I believe it’s because men did not get the business of beauty or what I was trying to create, so if we had more women in these positions, we would’ve at least had had more understanding.”
Today, the UAE is changing, as 40 percent of government employees and 60 percent of graduates are women. In Saudi Arabia, 65 percent of graduates are women, many of them stemming from science degrees. But more needs to be done to ensure full gender parity.
“Of the five countries in the MENA region with the highest female participation in the labor force, four are in the top five highest GDP per capita,” Kennedy added.
“So having women in the labor force dramatically increases the GDP of the country but, specifically in every study, public corporations with women in the C-suite do better than corporations without them.
“We need a dramatic attitude change about the role of women in these positions of power because the market’s broken, and the only way to do it is through law – it has proven to be the most effective way.”