More women are elbowing their way to the top of businesses in the Gulf, some of the region’s most prominent female executives said ahead of the first Arabian Business Women’s Forum.
Opportunities for women are on the rise with increasing numbers running their own companies or rising to the top in large conglomerates, said Lebanese entrepreneur Christine Sfeir.
“Whether being a businessman or a businesswoman it doesn’t make a huge difference. I know a lot of successful businesswomen who are facing the same challenges that men do,” said Sfeir, winner of ‘Businesswoman of the Year’ at the 2011 Arabian Business Achievement Awards.
Sfeir secured the first Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Lebanon at the age of 22-years, growing the business into a 30-branch, 250-employee brand in a matter of years.
“More and more you see businesswomen that are choosing to juggle between the family and the business side of things.”
Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, the Gulf state’s first film producer, said many industries remained male-dominated but that opportunities were increasingly available to women.
“Worldwide women got into film very late, maybe in the 80s, so the whole industry worldwide is super male-dominated,” she said. “[But] being a woman or man doesn’t make a difference. It’s whether you are professional or not.”
Some of the region's key business leaders have gathered in Dubai today to debate the challenges facing women working in the Middle East. Among the speakers at the Arabian Business Women’s Forum are Fatima Al Jaber, COO of Abu Dhabi’s Al Jaber Group, Virgin Megastore MENA president Nisreen Shocair, PepsiCo vice-president Vicki Gillespi and activist Mona Al Munajjed.
Though anecdotal evidence points to an increasing number of women breaking through the glass ceiling, data shows the Gulf continues to lag the world when it comes to gender equality.
In a global ranking by the World Economic Forum, no Middle East country ranked in the top 100 of the 135 nations covered.
Across the Gulf, the UAE was the highest-ranked country at No.103, followed by Kuwait (105), Bahrain (110), Qatar (111), Oman (127) and Saudi Arabia (131).
Yemen was rock bottom in 135th place.
Claire Fenner, co-founder of Dubai-based female entrepreneur group Heels & Deals, said more needed to be done to encourage women to enter the workforce and support those with families.
“There have been major advancements for women in the UAE in recent years… The fast growth of the country in recent years has helped to facilitate this,” she said.
“However, the government does need to do more to allow women, both Emirati and expatriate, to rise to the top by creating a more supportive environment for working women.
“The current maternity law only gives a woman 45 days paid maternity leave and there is no provision for unpaid maternity leave. This falls significantly below the maternity packages offered in other countries and does not provide working women having babies with enough options to achieve a career and have a family at that stage of motherhood,” she added.
Fenner suggested regulation in the region also required a rethink, to reflect the changing role of women in the workplace.
“Women are generally treated very respectfully here but there are ways in which the government can help women to advance further. It does make me laugh when my husband has to sign a form to say he ‘permits’ me to get a trade licence for my business,” said Fenner.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.