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Gender equality is now a central focus area for the Middle Eastern region. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Gender equality should be the standard, no longer the goal. To make impactful change, equity must be actively expected and weaved into our thoughts and actions – on top of the annual milestones we already celebrate. While other regions have made strides to move this needle, Mena (Middle East and North Africa) countries still have a long away to go.

My firm, APCO Worldwide, is a global majority woman-owned firm and has been a leading champion in our industry and in partnership with our clients to advance gender equity issues since its founding in 1984.

Here in the Middle East region, we take a closer look at the variables at play to better understand and assess the social, societal and political context of today. Although there has been progressive and positive momentum towards ensuring greater gender equality in this part of the world, deltas and gaps persist across the board. Perhaps our journey to transformation must begin from an imperative shift in the Arab mindset which is still predominantly patriarchal. Only this can help ensure societal and cultural change at a macro level but is felt by its impact across communities.

There are several positive steps initiated by governments in the region towards gender equality are worth celebrating. This includes creating more gender-relevant legislations, empowering female senior civil servants, and constitutionalizing equal rights for both men and women. However, compared to other nations, the Arab world lags far behind when it comes to numbers indicating transformation and there needs to be more progress given the global risks to gender equality on the line right now.

The United Arab Emirates is the frontrunner for gender equality in the region. As per the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, the UAE leads across the Arab world, and ranks first in four of the report’s indicators: women in parliament; sex ratio at birth; literacy rate; and enrolment in primary education. In just one year, the UAE has advanced 48 ranks, climbing from the 120th spot to 72nd. Women occupy 45 percent of all leadership roles in national state agencies in Bahrain.

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The United Arab Emirates is the frontrunner for gender equality in the region. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Central focus area

Furthermore, the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2020” study named Saudi Arabia as the most improved economy for gender equality.

Gender equality is now a central focus area for the Middle Eastern region. For Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’, gender equality is a cornerstone of the country’s efforts to increase employment, and to grow and diversify the Saudi economy. Like Saudi Arabia, in line with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), other Gulf countries too have committed to several socioeconomic blueprints, such as Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030, and Qatar’s National Vision 2030. The UAE, meanwhile, established the Gender Balance Council in 2015.

All of these are remarkable and progressive indicators of positive change, but the process is slow, affected by the strong influence of the patriarchal culture that dominates the conversation and the decision making bodies.

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As per the World Bank, women in the GCC region are among the most educated in the Arab world. Image Credit: Shutterstock

However, as per the World Bank, women in the GCC region are among the most educated in the Arab world; but increased access to education has not resulted in gender equity nor has it led to a proportional surge in numbers of women participating in the workforce. Culturally, the domestic role of women in these countries prevents their active participation in the labor force, as emphasized by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. Likewise, the educational achievements of women in GCC countries are no different from their counterparts in the top 20 countries in the report. Should the women choose to actively participate in the workforce, their ability to do so is on par with those top 20 countries. Therefore, education is no longer the key that is holding women back from contributing to their country’s economy.

Global Gender Gap index
As per WEF’s 2021 Global Gender Gap index, of the 156 countries measured, Saudi Arabia was ranked at 147, Oman at145, Kuwait 143, Qatar 142, Bahrain 137, and the UAE 72.
The Mena region also scored low in this report’s Economic Participation and Opportunity index, with Bahrain ranking at 134, Qatar 136, Kuwait 137, and Oman 143.
Despite reforms towards gender equality made by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2016, Saudi Arabia still sits at 149 - only seven points behind the last-ranked country: Afghanistan. 
The Middle East and North Africa region remains the area with the largest gender gap (60.9 per cent).  At present, women in the region make up only 21 per cent of the labour force and only contribute 18 per cent to Mena’s overall GDP.
Simply put - these numbers are alarming.
If the prevailing scenario were to continue, experts predict that it would take Mena more than a century to close the gender gap.

The report further indicates that when assessing the gender pay gap between men and women, the GCC countries have managed to draw level with the majority of the top 20 countries – ensuring equal pay for both genders. A final defining metric is women’s participation in politics - which seems significantly lower for countries in the GCC and the wider Mena versus the top 20 countries in the report. Impressively, the UAE remains the only country in the GCC region that appears to fare well in this area - and the only one to place in the top 100 (ranked at 72) in the Global Gender Gap Index, recording a significant increase over last year.

Clearly, the Mena region needs to collectively identify, understand and address these glaring gaps that have left it significantly on the backfoot when it comes to gender equality. Women in the region are well-educated and well capable of financial independence. However, despite that the financial burden of the household rests on the man. Why do such gaps exist in financial responsibility? Unfortunately, the age-old patriarchal mindset in the region continues to cause this gap.

As we work to shape a more gender equitable environment, I would like to leave you with some crucial questions to consider: At what cost can women join the region’s workforce? Should women be seen as the sole provider of childcare? How best can we enable women to become more independent decision makers? Do we tend to raise our sons and daughters differently? How can we ensure more equitable wages for men and women?

Let us resolve to identify the best approach to move forward with confidence and ensure that the Mena region maximizes its potential – without losing the precious contribution of its women.

Women’s representation in Arab Government
In the last decade, Arab women’s representation in the pollical sphere has slowly increased, however, they remain largely underrepresented at every level of governance.
Atop of battling the sociocultural expectation to choose careers outside of politics, these low numbers suggest that there are many barriers that women face to even enter the sphere.
This is a concerning matter – as political representation is important to normalising legislation that can cause lasting cultural change. Studies show that more women in government generally contribute to stronger attention to women’s issues.
As more of these women-centric policies are created, new generations will adopt them as cultural standards rather than laws – creating a slow but impactful change to how society views women.
One proven way to increase political representation is the adoption of quotas – and there are already several Mena nations experiencing positive results in representation.
The Gulf’s initiatives in bridging the gap
The GCC introduced several reforms in the recent past to empower women to participate in the labor force. For example, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates introduced reforms, including:

1.Guaranteed equality between men and women to obtain passports on their own
2.Prohibited gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women form the workforce
3.Enabled women to be heads of households by allowing them to choose their place of residency

Saudi Arabia also mandated non-discrimination on gender to access credit as well as equalized the retirement ages between men and women. The UAE passed legislation to combat domestic violence, impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace and removed job restrictions for women in certain sectors such as mining. These reforms are already creating immediate positive change in business. According to Hawkamah and Diligent, as of 2022, a third of 172 of the GCC’s blue-chip companies have at least one female board members – a 130% increase since 2019. Likewise, companies in the Dubai Financial Market and Abu Dhabi Securities exchange doubled their number of female directors from 1.9% in 2017 to 4% in 2020. While these numbers still have a long way to go, it’s encouraging to see the impact of equity-based policies in business representation.

- The author is the president for APCO Worldwide in the Mena region