Abu Dhabi: A huge round of applause spread across a room full of influential women during the second annual Women in Leadership (WIL) forum which began on Tuesday, as Adviser to Egypt's Ministry of Trade and Industry Dr Sahar Sallab quoted former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as saying: "If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."
While there are currently 12,500 commercial businesses licensed to women in the UAE, there is still plenty of room for women in the private sector, and for those who wish to invest in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), agreed women leaders in Tuesday's WIL forum.
Women in the Middle East control around $700 billion (Dh2.5 trillion) of the region's assets, said a report. Historically, Arab women have been quite disadvantaged compared to males and, more often than not, their destinies are inhibited by the dominant males in their lives — father, brothers or husband.
In a recent study of inequality between men and women in 134 countries published by the World Economic Forum (WEF Gender Gap report 2010), the GCC and Arab region ranks among the lowest in the world.
While Iceland and Scandinavian countries are at the top, the highest ranked Arab country is the UAE in 103rd place, with Kuwait at 105, Bahrain at 110, Lebanon 116, Qatar 117, Oman 122, Egypt 125 and Saudi Arabia at 129.
This is despite the fact that several GCC countries are considered "high income" societies, while some so-called "low income" countries like the Philippines (9) and Sri Lanka (16) rank in the top 20. The highest ranked Muslim country is Indonesia at 87.
According to Reuters, women in the GCC hold billions in personal wealth. About $12 billion belongs to Saudi women alone, of which 75 per cent is in cash deposits and 20 per cent in unit trusts.
Fatima Al Jaber, chief operating officer at Al Jaber Group, who was voted by Forbes Arabia as the 7th most influential woman in the Arab world in 2008, highlighted the importance of being emotionally intelligent, perseverant and positive if women wish to become successful leaders in the workforce.
"Women usually like to take more secure steps in life, they need to utilise their creativity and recall their expertise as effective leaders at home when entering a commercial operation. I also feel that at times, women are their own enemies. They focus on each other's failures rather than their successes, and stand in each others' way instead of holding hands and becoming a team," said Al Jaber.
One might think that gender differences and culture are the biggest challenges for Arab women. However, most of the female dele-gates agreed that one of their biggest challenges to their career paths was hindrance by other women in the workforce.
"Simply give your back to women who draw you down, and consider it nothing more than pollution in your head. Instead, focus on training and passing on your experience to more confident women who wish to climb the corporate ladder," advised Suzanne Al Houby, Chief Executive Officer at Rahhalah Explorers - Adventurer.
During the forum's opening keynote via video, Christine Lagarde, the French Minister of Economy, Industry and Employment, said it was essential that women in leadership positions support sisterhood in business.
"Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, once said, ‘There is a special place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women'. We must support each other," added the French minister.
Fatima shared some of the challenges she faced while climbing up the leadership ladder as an Emirati woman. "It wasn't easy to reach where I am today, but luckily, since its inception the UAE has focused on empowering women. My foremost challenge before joining the women's council was to speak with the media. I used to reject nine out of ten interviews at first. However I realized that it's part of my duty to utilize the media in reaching out to other women. It's also helped change the general perception in society regarding women in leadership positions."
She added: "Without the proper networking, there's no way a woman can succeed, so encouraging other women to mix with the opposite gender during business meetings was yet another challenge due to our traditions."
"A lot has changed in the past ten years in the UAE. When I first started, it was a challenge to find the right job. We used to ask institutions to take us in, now they are the ones approaching us," said Fatima, adding that most of the decision makers in the UAE Chamber of Commerce are currently women.
"However the role of women on boards of directors is still not strong enough. Now that our society is fully supporting our success, all we need to do is focus more."
Despite being enrolled in a mixed private school, and earning her father's support and respect since her youth, Ameera Bin Karam, Chairman of the Executive Committee in the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a successful Emirati businesswoman, admitted that her career path was no easy feat.
"When I first started 13 years ago, I had to work ten times harder than other people. I started off as a graphic designer and now run my own construction company. Despite the tough times we're going through these days, the GCC will offer up to 10 million jobs for women in the next ten years."
"There's also been a strong buzz of SME owners in the past eight to nine months in the UAE. I've witnessed nine SMEs established for women in Sharjah in the past three months, which is a great sign, but it needs to keep on going, and we need to see more businesswomen out there. Don't be afraid to take that step, a simple idea can work for you, just learn to trust in yourself, and keep away from those who put you down," Ameera told Gulf News on the sidelines of the forum.