So many questions have lately crossed my mind when reading about remarkable achievements of successful women in the Gulf. Why aren’t there more of these powerful women? Why are women still left behind? And what does it take for us to smash through the ‘glass ceiling’ and become real leaders?
Women in GCC countries are still not reaching enough leading positions or exerting enough influence in public life. They are under-represented in managerial jobs and few are participating in top decision-making roles in many public spheres. They have to work harder and be smarter than men to reach senior positions.
In spite of considerable gains in women’s status they still encounter barriers, challenges and gender discrimination because of cultural norms and local traditions in a patriarchal society. They lack opportunities and face discrimination such as gender wage gaps. Women in the Gulf are undeniably better off today than they were twenty years ago with improved levels of education and employment. They are socially and economically aware of what is happening both nationally and internationally and they are increasingly successfully competing in the labour market.
As result of higher education, explicit ambition and economic opportunities, along with advantages offered by child-care facilities and low-cost help at home, the number of women participating in the labour market has been growing at a considerable rate in the GCC countries. UN data (2012) indicated that the percentage of the female population aged 15 or over that is economically active reached was highest in Qatar (52 percent), followed by the UAE (44 percent), Kuwait (43 percent), Bahrain (39 percent), Oman (28 percent) and Saudi Arabia (18 percent).
But it is not enough to simply get women to join the labour force. Once they are in the workforce professional women need to be given encouragement, training and opportunities to rise to leadership. I am convinced that most educated and competent Arab women in the GCC region have the potential to be leaders if they are only given the opportunity to lead.
So what are the distinctive qualities that are needed to define a woman leader? A quick list of attributes and skills might read, in no particular order: enthusiasm, vision, self-confidence, courage, determination, flexibility, creativity, good communication and the ability to motivate others and to build a team.
I had the good fortune to learn about leadership during the many years when I worked for United Nations Agencies. I was able to gain invaluable experience in supervisory tasks and assignments for UN field-missions and I gradually took on leadership roles in decision-making and policy-making with a range of responsibilities. The top motivator for the role of a leader is to find passion in what one is doing. I remember the zeal and enthusiasm I felt when working in the field advising and training other women.
A woman who wants to be at the top of the ladder and lead others has to be willing to stand up for herself, her work, and her ideas. But alongside her positive vision and the determination and persistence to accomplish her goals she needs flexibility, a mind open to new ideas and a willingness to mould her challenges into reality and opportunities.
She should also know how to build her team with respect and trust, be able to communicate with her colleagues at all levels, both in listening to them and in informing them about what works and what needs improvement, inspiring and motivating others towards beneficial change.
Developing leadership qualities starts with education. High-quality learning is a sure path towards preparing women to become leaders. Knowledge is power and education is the best weapon for the advancement and empowerment of GCC women. Nowadays, high levels of relevant education and skills training are a priority together with an awareness of the actual knowledge market including the understanding and use of information and computer technology and the ability to speak foreign languages. But as well as relevant skills young women need opportunities during their education to develop the less formal skills – building their self-confidence, the skills of analysis and criticism, and calculated risk-taking – to develop the special attributes of a leader.
And once young women are in work, their employers need to provide training opportunities and empowerment programmes to help them continue up the ladder. Likewise, the provision of mentors is crucial to help women confront the challenges of leadership and female role models are necessary to learn leadership styles through observation of others.
I consider that it is vital to create a culture of learning through leading and emerging ideas that incite positive change. Evidence indicates that highly educated and skilled women have an increasing influence in decision-making, leading to positive and efficient results in the business and management sector as well as helping to bridge the gender gap in social norms and to overcome the barriers of a patriarchal culture. Some GCC governments are starting to recognise the untapped potential of women and the vital role they can play in national development. With women’s programmes now prioritised in national strategies, more women with capacity and talent are being encouraged and endorsed to strive for and assume leading positions.
I maintain that women’s leadership development should be provided both formally and informally through the establishment of policy programmes targeted at the empowerment of women and their engagement in embracing the qualities of a leader. GCC countries should join efforts through strategic relationships to implement this goal and institutionalise leadership programmes to advance their women.
Women’s empowerment in the Gulf countries will pave the way for women to have choices and to make decisions. It will also help them to use their rights and increase their access to and control over economic resources.
But it is not only women who have to build confidence and change their viewpoint towards life; the attitudes of our men also have to change, becoming not just more tolerant and but also positively encouraging of female leadership. I believe that every woman should have the opportunity to realise her dreams and succeed in her own journey. She should be proud of her own achievements in making a difference.
Now is the time to invest in our future. And our women leaders will make changes happen.
Dr. Mona AlMunajjed is a Sociologist, author and advisor on social and gender issues. firstname.lastname@example.org