Originally posted on The National by Tahira Yaqoob.
Women achievers such as mountaineer Raha Moharrak are seen as the symbol of female empowerment in the GCC. But a new book sheds light on a stark disparity between the number of women graduates and those going into jobs.
They come from all walks of life – electrical engineers, mountaineers, business executives and entrepreneurs.
But there is one thing that unites the women depicted in a new book,Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future. It’s a fierce determination not to be held back by circumstance, tradition or self-doubt.
Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Everest, the business magnate Raja Al Gurg, and Donna Sultan, chief executive of the architectural and engineering firm KEO International Consultants, are among those lending their voices to the book.
The book was launched last week in Dubai, where there were plenty of empowered and powerful women to tell their stories.
But despite its upbeat title, Game Changers paints a rather bleak picture.
While the climate is undoubtedly changing, it points to a stark disparity between the number of women completing higher education and those going into, and succeeding, in the workplace.
Research by the book’s three authors shows that while 65 per cent of graduates in the GCC are women, only 26 per cent of women of working age go on to get jobs – half the global average of 52 per cent.
Those figures drop to 15 per cent when it comes to women in a supervisory role and as low as 5 per cent for leadership roles.
“Given the fact women on average in this region outperform men in all educational areas, it is having an impact on productivity and on positivity in the workplace,” says David Jones, who co-wrote the book with fellow researchers Sophie le Ray and Radhika Punshi.
Five years ago Jones and Punshi set up human resources consultancy Talent Enterprise.
About two-thirds of the people coming through their consultancy are GCC nationals, although the results of their study include expatriates.
The researchers noticed that factors including family and childcare pressures, lack of economic necessity to work and lack of flexibility in working hours were keeping women out of the workplace, with just one in four employed.
“Women are gaining significantly in education but they continue to be lower down in the workplace,” says Punshi.
“At every critical transition point for women, you are losing half the workforce and therefore half of the potential, which we think is concerning.
“There are a number of reasons. Women in places like Saudi, Qatar and the UAE have had the choice to work. It has not been an economic necessity like it is everywhere else.
“Second is the regulatory environment, which means it is not easy sometimes for housewives to get working visas. And there is not enough clarity from a regulation perspective about part-time and flexible jobs.”
Their findings are backed by a 2013 World Bank report called Opening Doors: Gender Equality and Development in Mena.
It pointed to economic, legislative and cultural obstacles conspiring to keep women out of jobs. But it also found they were better educated, healthier and outnumbering men at university level.
In Qatar, women were nearly seven times as likely as men to go to university. Once they graduated, it was a different story.
Women on average dropped out of the workforce at the age of 25, whether they had children or not.
The World Bank report also found that women in the region were struggling to balance a career with raising a family – arguably a global problem, with women in the West facing the added pressure of an economic need to work and the steep cost of childcare.
The number of women working in the UK reached a record high of 67.2 per cent in 2014, according to Britain’s office for national statistics.
But at the same time, the gender pay gap increased.
The US government’s labour department figures showed 47 per cent of the American workforce in 2010 were women but they were only earning about 80 per cent of men’s pay on average.
Dr Muna AbuSulayman, the Saudi Arabian co-founder of online translation service Meedan.com, says the impetus to implement change is one factor working in women’s favour.
“High-achieving Arab women with the full support of family and the ability to hire staff for household help have it much easier than other women in the world in the same position,” Dr AbuSulayman says. “It is easier for us to have the work-life balance if we want to.
“When my girls were younger I worked and travelled a lot less. I did not take job opportunities in other countries because I wanted the girls to see my ex-husband at weekends.”
French-born Ms Sultan, another of the 13 women interviewed for Game Changers, agrees: “Always having to think about how to handle family and work demands is not easy.
“Whatever the choice you make, there are compromises and conflicts that arise.”
And Manal Al Bayat, a key member of the Expo 2020 team, points out that while a man who works an 80-hour week would still be heralded as a great father, a mother who does the same would be judged by completely different criteria.
But change is afoot. In 2012 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, made it compulsory for the nation’s corporations and government bodies to include women on their boards of directors.
“Women proved themselves in many workplaces and today we want them to have a strong presence in decision-making positions in our institutions,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, entrepreneur Khalid Alkhudair launched his Glowork platform to find jobs for women, the chauffeur service Uber is giving them greater flexibility, and increasing daycare facilities, and jobs in a women-only industrial zone are boosting the opportunities to work. Women in the kingdom only make up 15 per cent of the workforce.
“I am a mother of two girls and I want them to be offered the same opportunities for the effort, skills and work ethic they are putting in as everyone else,” says Le Ray.
“I do not want a society where they take over or where women are given things on a platter. I want a society where women are confident to go after their goals and make it happen.”
Jones says rather than being innovative, creating more opportunities for women is “a return to stronger, more visible roles for women in society, not a new model”.
He points to the Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija, a successful businesswoman, and the women who built the prosperity of the UAE as early as the early 1900s when they traded in property, farming and goods from their own homes.
“Women were very influential in shaping religion and determining society in general,” Jones says.
Punshi anticipates significant changes within five years.
She says the appointment of eight female cabinet ministers, including a 22-year-old Minister of State for Youth, is a positive consequence.
“It is incredible to see them at that level,” she says.
“As soon as you get a critical mass of 20 to 25 per cent, it really starts to change things.”
Jones writes in the book that no amount of effort will be successful without “cultural, behavioural and attitudinal shifts to the concept of greater diversity and inclusion among women and especially among men”.
Because that really would be a game changer.