Defying cliched stereotypes, the UAE has defined clear and powerful roles for women in its workplaces and in economic and social development
History has repeatedly taught us that educating, enabling and encouraging women are successful strategies towards achieving sustained growth. In the UAE, continuous support for gender equality has given its women bigger exposure and greater capabilities for excelling in leadership roles, which in turn, is contributing to wealth creation and social development.
“Women are essential partners in our communities’ economic infrastructure,” Shaikha Jawaher Bint Mohammad Al Qasimi, Wife of His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, and Chairperson of NAMA Women's Advancement Establishment (NAMA) declared in early December. Speaking on the eve of the first edition of the Women's Economic Empowerment Global Summit (WEEGS), she underscored the UAE’s experience in empowering women as an approach that has been in effect since the country’s establishment.
She also cited the UAE’s current rankings on this front, which includes first place in the GCC and second in the Arab world in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap World Report, and second in the world in their index of wage equality for the same job. The UAE, she said, has also pledged $5 million (Dh18.36 million) annually to UN Women for a three-year period starting in 2018, to ensure steadfast continuity.
All these facts are visible across the country through the large numbers and inspiring success stories of Emirati and expatriate women who are successful entrepreneurs, ministers, ambassadors, pilots, bankers, surgeons and other professionals. Their active presence and participation in the workplace today is a result of emancipation that took place in distinct phases.
In the Bedouin society of old, women occupied important positions – they cooked, raised children, herded and milked animals, spun yarn and made clothes. They were also accorded the great honour of weaving animal hair fabric to build the famed Bedouin home, the black tent. While younger women watched over children and animals, older women spun goat hair on looms to create what is today considered a striking example of vernacular architecture. Inside the tent too, most household activity took place in the muharram, the female section of the tent.
Sometimes, when Bedouin women were forced to assume the role of breadwinners, they ventured outside their homes to sell fish and vegetables alongside their male counterparts, while others made additional family income by selling perfumes, embroidery and other handicrafts.
These traditions continued until the formation of the UAE in 1971, when new roles were made available for them in the young country. The UAE’s constitution declares clearly that men and women are equal in their rights and obligations, and provides them equal opportunities to education, healthcare and jobs.
Among the many virtuous and visionary statements made by the UAE’s founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, are the ones where he charged local society to treat women with equality and respect, and, also urged women to assert themselves.
“I hope that the women in my country will follow their sisters in those countries which have previously made the adjustment to the procession of progress and development,” he said.
In February 2002, while meeting Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak along with Her Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation, Chairwoman of The General Women's Union and President of the Supreme Council of Motherhood and Childhood, his wife and Chairwoman of the UAE Women's Federation, Shaikh Zayed declared unequivocal support.
“I am a supporter of women. I say this to emphasise the right of women to work and to participate in the building of their country. I consider this as part of my role as a father and a leader,” he said.
In the earliest years of the UAE, at a time when it was taboo for them to step out of the house, and few believed in its importance, Shaikh Zayed not only opened the portals of education to women, he insisted that they travel abroad to pursue higher education to be later employed in managerial positions within the government.
Several Emirati women recount tales of how Shaikh Zayed handpicked them for the first jobs they held: he told female teachers that they were equal to 10,000 women, and women who proved themselves well in the workplace that that they were equal to 20 men.
His wife, meanwhile, continues to propel the empowerment of women in the UAE. After establishing the UAE Women Federation in the 1970s, Shaikha Fatima has led numerous initiatives for the development of women and their enhancement in society.
In 2012, the UAE became the first Arab country to introduce a mandatory female presence in boardrooms. Today, there are no less than eight ministers in the federal government, and Dr Amal Abdullah Al Qubaisi, Speaker of the UAE’s Federal National Council, is the first woman to head a parliament in the Arab region.
In September 2017, when the UAE launched The Gender Balance Guide: Actions for UAE Organisations, in coordination with the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it was the first of its kind in the world.
The guide follows the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, and the UAE Vision 2021 of becoming one of the top 25 countries for gender equality.
The UAE is home to several thousand women entrepreneurs and senior management executives. Mashreq, the oldest private bank in the country has been an early advocate of equality, and offers constant and continuing support – from special facilities for female entrepreneurs to dedicated female relationship managers.
Mashreq is also a sterling example of employing women in a wide assortment of professional roles. Linda Tarazi (pictured right), Head of Corporate and Investment Banking Group (CIBG) Business Transformation, Strategy and Intelligence, makes a compelling case for diversity. “Women continue to be woefully under-represented in our most senior roles, particularly in a male dominated field such as banking," she says.
“Although a small increase, the percentage of female executive directors is on the rise for the first time in the last few years.
"Diversity means more, not less, competition, but it creates more resilient organisations, more productive workforces and less risky decision-making,” adds Tarazi, who has been with the bank for 12 years.
But she cautions against inclusiveness for its own sake. “Companies should focus on inclusive leadership, retain and promote on the basis of merit and merit alone,” she says.
Businesswoman, Sonia Kapoor (right) has an enviable role as a social observer and commentator. The Indian expatriate, who lived in Dubai for nine years, recently returned after several years spent working abroad, and she is stunned with the progress. “The changes over the last few years are quite marked, in both professional and personal territories,” says the Partner and Business Humanizer at Innate Motion. “I see many more local women going beyond government roles and working in diverse industries, and also becoming successful entrepreneurs.
“On another front, I also see more Emirati ladies in public places, coming out with their husbands and friends to relax and enjoy themselves, 11 years ago, one would see much less of this. More and more women in the UAE are seeking – and getting – opportunities for self-expression, and this is a wonderful development.”
According to statistics issued by the Federal Authority in the framework of the UAE’s gender balance, women occupy 47 per cent of leadership and supervisory positions in the country. They also hold 61 per cent of administrative jobs, 72 per cent of jobs in the health sector, 69 per cent in education, 13 per cent in the judiciary, 29 per cent in the diplomatic corps, and 23 per cent in specialised professional positions.
“The UAE is at the forefront of equality and promoting talent,” says Tarazi. “Senior positions in the government that are led by appointed professional women are a clear indication of this, as well as of the ongoing support provided to encouraging women to pursue their careers and give back to society.”
The UAE Gender Balance Council says that the UAE is also currently home to about 23,000 businesswomen, running investments worth Dh50 billion.
“The UAE offers a very business friendly environment. Getting licences and setting up businesses are easy, and therefore the country constantly attracts talent. Over the years, I have seen many female friends and former colleagues start businesses and become extremely successful,” adds Kapoor.
“Similarly, an enabling and safe work environment and the UAE’s inclusive policies have attracted many talented and diverse women to work here and their success stories are a constant source of inspiration.”
The numbers are soaring, and the tendency is strengthening. Soon, the vision of the UAE as a leading economy underpinned with strong contributions from women will not merely be a theory, but certainty.