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.