Amid the usual geopolitical squabbles that can often define the news agenda in this region, last week there was welcome news from closer to home. The UAE Cabinet approved legislation to ensure equal pay for men and women. According to government news agency WAM, “the Cabinet’s approval of the new law is in line with the government’s objective to ensure the protection of women’s rights and support their role in the national development process.”
This is just the latest in efforts to enshrine gender equality within the law. In 2015 the UAE Council for Gender Balance was established, with a mandate to position UAE among the leading countries in the world in terms of gender equality.
There is also the Strategy for the Empowerment of Emirati Women launched by Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, who continues to build on the work of her late husband, Sheikh Zayed. As this magazine’s weekly tribute page in to mark the centenary of his birth invariably shows, education and equal rights were powerful motivations for the founding father of the UAE.
Today, 70 percent of graduates are women, while 46 percent of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women. In the context of this region, those are hugely impressive statistics.
Of course, there is more to do, and that process has been given added urgency in recent years. As Mark Forster summarises in his new book, A Quiet Revolution? The Rise of Women Managers, Business Owners and Leaders in the Arabian Gulf States, “the diversification and growth of economies… of the region cannot happen unless many more women become active participants in their labour markets in the future.”
So while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman wants to modernise his country because it is the right thing to do, he also knows that there is absolutely no way he can reboot the country’s economy in a post-oil era if 50 percent of the workforce cannot even drive themselves to an office.
And as a young man himself, the Crown Prince also understands the demographic imperative. The GCC’s youth bulge – 60 percent of the population is under 25 – means there are lots of young, educated, social media savvy people who need something to do. There’s little to gain by leaving them out of the equation.
Clearly there is still more to do for true gender parity to exist. In this region the responsibility for childcare falls more heavily on women, which hinders progress in the workplace. While that’s partly cultural, there are things that the private sector could do to help, such as more flexible working hours for both sexes. From a government perspective, the current three days of paternity leave is a long way short of addressing the need for shared family responsibility.
Indeed, this is something the newly launched National Family Policy is looking at as it seeks to work out how to adapt family roles for the modern era without sacrificing social cohesion. It’s a delicate balancing act but one that has to be struck.
In the US, a date is marked each year that shows how much longer into the following year the average American woman would need to work in order to earn what men were paid in the previous year. That date this year was April 10. For African-Americans, Equal Pay Day won’t arrive until August 7. For Latinas it will come on November 1.
While this is bad enough, in other countries there are far worse issues. In India, 63 million women are “missing” statistically, and more than 21 million girls are unwanted by their families.
So there are many levels to the inequality issue that require a multitude of approaches to fix. It is up to employers, families and governments to tackle one of humanity’s oldest, and fundamentally incorrect notions: that men somehow merit greater reward than women. It’s up to all of us, every day, to challenge this outdated idea.
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