Abu Dhabi: The low numbers of women in entrepreneurial and managerial positions in the Arab world could be reducing profit margins, leading executives said at a conference in the capital yesterday.

Citing global studies that showed women-owned businesses grew faster than those owned by men, the executives called for the cultural recognition of the female potential in the UAE's corporate sector.

"Today, nearly 66 per cent of positions in the UAE's public sector are occupied by Emirati women, compared to only 4 per cent in private corporations," Almas Jiwani, president of the United Nations Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, said.

"It is therefore critically important that they be empowered enough to occupy decision-making roles in private companies."

She was speaking at the third annual Women in Leadership Forum. The two day event, which took place at the Emirates Palace Hotel, ended yesterday.

"It is also surprising to see that despite the high number of educated women present in the Middle East, only a quarter of all women end up as active members of the workforce, which is a shame, since 77 per cent of them enrol at universities," Almas added.

Speakers also presented statistics highlighting their concerns about the lack of female leadership in organisations. Among them, in 2006, only 10 per cent of all managerial positions in the Arab world were held by women. They also stressed that although women earn only 10 per cent of the global income at present, Fortune 500 companies with a large female presence in senior positions earn 53 per cent more profit.

Verbally proficient

"Women are verbally proficient, sensitive to cultural differences and foster long-term collaborative relationships more frequently than male employees," Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansour, wife of the Malaysian prime minister, said.

"Still, studies from around the world have shown that their potential as a source of economic growth has been neglected and underdeveloped."

Jiwani also noted that cultural beliefs about women's roles in the Middle East were a cause for their low participation in the workforce.

"Since women have a tougher time balancing work and life, lack of household support is another factor holding them back," she added.

The forum also highlighted several models for successful women's integration and entrepreneurship, such as the Coca Cola Company's ‘5 by 20' initiative, which began last year.

"Through this ten-year project, we will provide funding and logistical support to five million women worldwide," Dr Susan Mboya, group director of the Eurasia Africa Group for Women's Empowerment at the Coca Cola Company, said.

"In Egypt, Pakistan and Zambia, we are financing 200 women to start their own businesses, and the main reason why this initiative could have a significant impact on local communities is because we are also training women in vocational skills, and enabling them to secure bank loans."

Alongside the forum, the Shaikha Shamsa Bint Suhail Award for Creative Women was also awarded to 15 Emirati women for their achievements in various sectors.