By Parag Deulgaonkar
GCC states fell behind in closing the gap between women and men last year, but governments are striving to re-tip the scales.
It will take 129 years for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to close the gender equality gap, the World Economic Forum revealed last year.
The century-long forecast for the MENA region looks daunting, to say the least, especially when compared to South Asia, which is expected to close the gender parity gap in about a third of the time (46 years); Western Europe in 61 years, Latin America in 72 years and Sub-Saharan Africa in 79 years.
While MENA countries closed more than 60 percent of the gap last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries haven’t performed as well. Among the GCC counties, Qatar slipped three places in one year to 119th in 2016; the UAE fell five places to 124th; and Saudi Arabia dropped seven places to 141th out of 144 nations.
The results have forced GCC governments to address the situation with some sense of urgency.
As part of Qatar National Vision 2030, the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics intends to establish a centralised government agency to tackle gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Under its Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom says, “Saudi women are yet another great asset”, adding that more than 50 percent of its university graduates are women.
“We will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy,” the vision document states.
The UAE has been leading the charge for change within the GCC. In 2015, the government set up a gender balance council to strengthen the role of Emirati women at local and international levels.
While delivering his keynote speech at the World Government Summit on February 12, Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum praised the active participation of women in the UAE.
“About one-third of the cabinet is made of women. We believe that no community can function without women’s involvement. Soon, women will occupy 50 percent of the cabinet portfolios,” he said.
During a UN high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment meeting last week, Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said the UAE will work to provide women with the best skills to positively serve society, which will help open the door for women to reach the highest positions in public service and in the private sector.
“We are keen to build bridges with all parties that work to provide a decent life for women regionally and globally, which is part of the UAE’s government agenda,” Sheikh Hamdan said.
“The UAE constitution states that women have the same rights and obligations as men. Hence, the participation of women and men in the country’s economic development is an obligation, whereas the distinction at work is determined by their ability to innovate and be creative to achieve the objective,” he said.
Supporting the government’s progressive action is Peter Mihok, chairman of Paris-based World Chambers Federation – the voice of thousands of private companies that employ millions of workers worldwide. The federation represents 12,000 chambers.
Mihok was in Dubai to work with women of the WCF general council.
“Change is taking place in the region, and governments in these [Middle Eastern] countries are doing a lot to address the issue,” he said.
“They, however, need to create a legal framework which allows women to take a professional break, and help her to come back to her professional career postpartum,” he said.
Hoda Abou-Jamra, chairperson of the GCC chapter of the 30% Club, an association committed to achieving better gender balance at all levels of organisations, admits the speed of this progress is “unprecedented” despite the region’s complex cultural history, social norms and legal structures.
She believes the biggest challenge is to bring in cultural change to encourage women in the Arab world to continue working after getting married or starting a family.
“There is a lot that private companies can do to encourage gender equality. And I think that board diversification is one of the key steps. A growing body of research suggests that more women on the management floor and in the board room may equate to outperforming returns. If a company’s products address a diverse population, then a diversified management team will help them to perform well financially,” she said.
Her company, TVM Capital Healthcare Partners, has invested in two companies that were founded by women: Manzil Health Care Services, and ProVita International Medical Centre, where women are sitting on all but one of the boards of their portfolio companies, Abou-Jamra said.
The Pearl Initiative, a Gulf business-led organisation focusing on women empowerment, also highlights the change taking place in the private sector. But still a far cry from public sector initiatives.
In its recent report, it cites the case of GE, which has seen the number of women employees in Saudi Arabia grow from zero in 2009 to more than 100 today, with the company’s Gulf region headed by an Emirati woman.
“In recent years, women in the Gulf region have been breaking through the glass ceiling at a growing pace, increasingly taking on top government and private sector jobs,” the Pearl Initiative executive director Carla Koffel says.
“Yet, even with scores of highly qualified women graduating from universities in the region every year, female participation at the decision-making level still remains low. The private sector clearly plays a pivotal role in driving change.”