Despite great strides in education and employment, a large gender gap remains in positions of status, says Saudi sociologist and author, Dr Mona Al Munajjed
Women in the GCC countries have not yet made it to the top. While their share of the workforce is increasing, it is still hard for them to reach senior positions, which are mostly held by men. Although this is a worldwide phenomenon, it is particularly striking in the Gulf region where leadership has been traditionally perceived in male terms. As a result, women in the region continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions in many fields and their progress has been slow.
Women’s lives in the GCC have improved tremendously during the past decades. They have become better educated and, according to United Nations data, the adult literacy rates for women have increased considerably, reaching 90 percent in Bahrain, 92 percent in Kuwait (2008), 81 percent in Oman (2008), 92 percent in Qatar (2009), 81 percent in Saudi Arabia (2009) and 91 percent in the UAE (2005). More educated women have joined the labour market and, in 2010, the percentage of female employment to population ratio (15+) reached its highest in Qatar with 50.5 percent, with Kuwait following at 42.3 percent, UAE at 37.5 percent, Bahrain at 31.4 percent, Oman at 23.6 percent and Saudi Arabia at 14.6 percent.
However, despite great strides in education and employment, a large gender gap remains in positions of status. Women may be as qualified as men but they seldom work in jobs with power and authority; they also experience considerable delay in attaining the higher levels of jobs and income.
United Nations data closest to year 2010 indicate that women’s share of key roles such as legislators, senior officials and managers reached 22 percent in Bahrain, fourteen percent in Kuwait, ten percent in the UAE, eight percent in Saudi Arabia, and only seven percent in Qatar. Most of these percentages compare unfavourably with other countries in Asia such as Malaysia (24 percent) and Indonesia (22 percent), and even more so with the USA (43 percent) and Europe (France 39 percent, Germany 38 percent, the UK 35 percent, Sweden and Spain 32 percent, and Switzerland 30 percent).
Why is the potential of professional women in the Gulf region still untapped? A number of cultural, organisational and personal challenges hamper women from reaching senior positions. We live in a patriarchal society where the social system is still based on the authority of men and women are discriminated against in the workplace. Men are still holding tight the reins to high-level positions and women are not encouraged to participate at the top of major public institutions and private companies.
Another reason is the division of domestic labour, with traditional gender norms and stereotypes still tending to confine the role of women to childbearing and rearing. Women are giving up their progression up the corporate ladder in order to raise their children. The general perception remains that women cannot dedicate their time around the clock to responsibilities other than their families.
A third reason relates to the type of education women receive and occupational discrimination, where traditional views on what constitute appropriate spheres for women’s employment reinforce their domestic role. Most young GCC women graduate in the fields of education and human and natural sciences, thus creating a gender imbalance in the labour market and key positions. Work labelled as “female” such as teaching and social services in the public sector offer better working conditions and a balance between jobs and family responsibilities.
So, how do women catch up with men in senior management positions? Nowadays, global corporate companies, conscious of the value of gender balance at all levels because it helps to boost their output, are more eager to hire and promote women. Research and evidence indicate that the appointment of women as top managers can positively improve the performance of a company as they bring different management styles, skills and experience to the corporate environment.
Women are positively recruited to senior management positions in companies in many European countries, in some cases through the use of gender quotas. Norway has introduced a legal quota requiring that at least 40 percent of board members of public companies be women. Spain and France have imposed a similar compulsory goal of 40 percent for female directors companies to be reached by 2015 in Spain and by 2017 in France. Companies will be dissolved if these quotas are not met. In Germany, companies are officially requested to increase the number of women on their boards and a national debate is taking place on the viability of quotas. As a result, 30 major German corporations are now seeking to increase the number of women in senior positions.
In Asia, the government of Indonesia has been encouraging women to move ahead in their careers. In 2004, the government set a policy that 30 percent of those holding decision-making positions in the civil service should be women. After considerable success, in 2011 the policy was extended to the corporate sector and companies have been given five years to meet the requirement. In other Asian countries, private companies are active in promoting the advancement of women’s careers and encouraging them to join business programmes. A growing number of young women in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India are pursuing MBAs and enrolling in business programmes to gain access to better jobs in banks and big firms in their countries. As a result, in India more women are now holding senior jobs in the information and communication technology (ICT) industry and in China the number of women holding senior management positions has been rising considerably.
Today, for the GCC countries to become a dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy they need to recognise and value women's talents and skills. I believe that as a first step on the road to equal employment opportunities the national educational system for girls should be revamped to respond to the demands and priorities of a modern dynamic society. Educational opportunities should be expanded to provide alternatives to the humanities and social services such as sciences, mathematics, business administration, and ICT, subjects that are key to innovation and competition in today’s world. Equal education opportunities would give both men and women the same capabilities and opportunities to perform. It is only through the empowerment of women and their autonomy in the social, economic, and political spheres that our society can attain healthy and sustainable development.
GCC governments are making serious efforts to enhance the participation of women in decision-making positions. The National Development Strategy of Qatar seeks to increase the number of women in leadership by 30 percent. It is establishing a women’s leadership centre to build capacity and increase the number of women in political, organisational and business-related decision-making positions. In Saudi Arabia, policy makers are working to introduce reforms to the status of women, granting them a more active role in public life and in top leadership positions. In Bahrain, the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Bahraini Women seeks to achieve the full participation of women in the labour force and enable their access to leadership positions in both public and private sectors. In the UAE, the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women seeks to reinforce women’s active role in both the public and private sectors and to pave their way toward higher decision-making positions. In Oman, the National Strategy for Advancement of Omani Women promotes the full participation of women in economic and social development processes and seeks to expand their representation in higher positions. As a result of these efforts, a number of women in the Gulf region have been appointed to senior positions traditionally dominated by men, including: in Bahrain, Fatima Al Beloushi, minister of human rights and Lulwa Al Awadhi, secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Women; in Kuwait, Mudhi Al Humoud, minister of education and higher education, Maha Al Ghunaim, chairperson of Global Investment House of Kuwait; in Oman, Rawiyah Bint Saud Al Busaidiyah, minister of higher education, Assilah Zaher Al Harthy, head of corporate affairs, Oman Oil Company; in Qatar, Maha Mansour Al Thani, first female court judge, Sheikha Hanadi Bint Nasser Al Thani, founder and chairperson of Amwal and Hessa Al Jaber, secretary general of Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology; in Saudi Arabia, Nora Al Fayez, first vice education minister for girls’ education, Lubna Olayan, CEO of Olayan Financing Company and Nahed Taher, CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank; in the UAE, Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, minister of foreign trade, Fatima Al Jaber, CEO of Al Jaber Group and Hanan Al Tamimi, senior manager, tendering and engineering at Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.
In light of the success of quotas in Norway and Indonesia, I believe that the use of a quota system for a more gender-balanced professional environment may work in GCC countries provided that only women with the right qualifications and experience are selected for senior positions. But although quotas will put pressure for change on public institutions and business companies, they cannot offer the sole solution. Society also has to acknowledge that women can be as successful as men and can perform as effectively as men in senior positions. To achieve this, we need to raise awareness that women can contribute not only through their role as mothers but also as active agents in society and as successful future leaders, making a shift from the traditional view that labels women solely as housekeepers and child-raisers to a more progressive one that accepts women as breadwinners capable of holding decision-making positions. Motherhood should not be seen as a brake on women’s development. On the contrary, it is a most valuable role, which cannot be measured in financial terms. However, both parents have a responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We need also to establish childcare facilities and nurseries in workplaces to help working mothers in their career.
To develop workingwomen’s skills in decision-making and leadership and help them realise their full potential, we need to provide training, career development initiatives, mentoring programmes, and networking opportunities. We also need to initiate gender mainstreaming policies and mechanisms in companies and major public occupations to allow women to join equally in the social, economic and political life of the country. Governments, civil societies including non-governmental organisations and the private sector should work hard to promote women and guarantee gender balance in senior positions.
Today, professional women in the Gulf region are ready to face the challenges of leadership; their expectations are rising and they are demanding more gender reform and change in society. It is important to empower them with both family and government support, and to recognise their exceptional skills, clear vision and hard work.
Dr Mona Al Munajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on women and gender issues.
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