By Bernd Debusmann Jr
As the world celebrates International Women's Day, prominent women are warning that despite significant advances, more can be done to ensure women are empowered in economies and societies around the region and world
Despite the considerable advances made by women in the region, much work remains to be done as part of “continuous” effort to empower women, according to experts speaking ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, March 8.
According to the UNDP Gender Equality index, the UAE is the highest ranked country in the Arab World. Government statistics show that 77 percent of Emirati women enrol in high education after secondary school, as well as make up 70 percent of all university graduates.
Over half – 56 percent – of UAE government university graduates in science, technology, and engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women.
In a statement released ahead of International Women’s Day, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, said that “every day in the UAE is a day for women’s empowerment and support”, adding that efforts to further empower Emirati women is “continuous” and occurs “at all levels”.
Sheikha Fatima added that “Emirati women should be proud of their accomplishments and for being an essential partner in the country’s development, and for becoming a regional and global role model to be emulated.”
Among the Emirati women playing a significant role in the country’s development is Sara Al Madani, who – in addition to founding or co-founding a number of companies in both the UAE and US – is also a board member of the UAE Ministry of Economy’s SME Council and the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In a recent interview with Arabian Business, Al Madani noted that there remains a conspicuous absence of women on the boards of companies. As recently as 2016, only 1.5 percent of board members in the UAE were women, well below the global average of 19.7 percentt calculated by the Women on Boards organisation.
“It happens most in the finance sector,” she said. “The reason why women don’t sit on boards is because men think they are emotional, and therefore their decision making process is completely different. When you’re emotional, you tend to change your mind a lot.”
Her encounters with companies across the UAE, she added, often show that the presence of women on company boards ultimately proves beneficial.
“Every board that has women, when I ask the men on the board, the differences [they mention] are that they fight less, are more respectful towards each other, even smile more,” she added. “It’s like a splash of colour in a black and white room. They’re forced to act more civil.”
These issues, she added, are particularly prevalent in the finance sector, which she said remains “a man’s world.”
“Many believe that women aren’t good at finances, although [a majority] of the graduates with A-grades are women,” she said. “If they have the educational background, there’s no reason to think that they won’t be able to do the job. They just need a chance.”
If women in finance – and other sectors – around the globe are given equal opportunities, the world could reap significant economic benefits, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Speaking at the recent Global Women’s Forum Dubai 2020, Georgieva noted that she believes the economic impact of gender equality on the global economy is too often overlooked.
“Yes, gender equality is morally right,” she said, “but beyond that, it is great economics.”
Globally, Georgieva said that total gender equality would lead to $172 trillion in additional wealth, leading to a “much richer world.”
“If we were to just bring the Middle East to par with the more advanced economies…over the next years, there would be $1 trillion more in output for everyone to share,” she said. “We are talking about very significant improvements.”
Even with work left to be done, several countries in the region have been singled out by world leaders as having made significant strides when it comes to women.
Ivanka Trump, for example, recently pointed to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – as well as Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia – as having made laudable improvements for women in their countries.
“Saudi Arabia has changed laws to respect women’s freedom of movement, and access to credit and financial services,” she said, “and Bahrain has introduced legislation to prevent discrimination in the workforce."
Despite the positive reforms, Trump advised against growing “complacent” while work remains to be done.
“Too many women continue to face obstacles to entering the workforce, starting their own business, reaching their full potential and charting their own future,” she said. “In the Middle East and North Africa, on average, women only have half the legal rights of men.”
In her remarks, Trump said that in the Middle East region alone, women’s economic equality has the potential to add $600 billion to global annual GDP in 2025.
“This number represents far more than an economic boom,” she said. “It represents millions of lives of promise.”