Educated and ambitious, women in the region are participating more in the public arena. But there are challenges ahead for policymakers, Mona AlMunajjed and Karim Sabbagh write
As a result of the dramatic demographic transitions of the past 40 years, the GCC countries are experiencing high population growth and an increasing number of young people in search of work.
Surely there are great benefits for these countries if they can harness the creative and economic potential of this "demographic dividend" of young people.
Of this group, an untapped potential still lies with the region's young women.
Today, as result of increased education, GCC women are exerting a positive influence on their society as they move beyond the traditional confinements of home and family. Educated and ambitious young women are participating more and more in the public arena as businesswomen, university deans, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers, and government ministers.
To better understand their progress and how it is perceived by both young men and women, Booz & Company conducted a survey of young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
We found that despite the gains women have made, a mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC's patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence, limiting their opportunities in education, employment and leisure pursuits.
Notably, we found a significant "aspiration gap" between men and women. When we asked both what they feel should be the role of women in society, 59 per cent of men believed women should first be wives and mothers - a marked discrepancy from the women's response, where just 22 per cent felt that was true. Similarly, whereas only 27 per cent of men felt women should seek employment for financial support or independence, an overwhelming 71 per cent of women believed that they should do so.
We found similar discrepancies when we asked about the role of women in education and employment. In response to the question "do you believe in equal opportunities between men and women in education?", 91 per cent of women said yes, compared with only 67 per cent of men. Likewise, 76 per cent of women believed in equal opportunities in employment, compared with just 46 per cent of men.
Although young men accept that more women are getting an education, they still resistthe idea that they should have the same opportunities as men in the workforce. While 44 per cent of men said their government should encourage women to work in different fields as a way to improve their status, only 36 per cent responded that it should encourage the promotion of women to prominent decision-making posts, and 24 per cent said there was no need to improve women's status.
By contrast, 70 per cent of women said governments should encourage women to work in different fields, 69 per cent said they should encourage women's promotion to prominent posts, and only 5 per cent said there was no need to improve women's status in society.
Another pertinent finding from our survey showed the ambition and initiative of young GCC women. When asked "what can your country's government do to expand economic opportunities for youth?", the most common response among young women was "promote youth entrepreneurship"; 65 per cent of young women thought this would be effective. Among young men, however, this choice came in third, with 59 per cent of young men opting for it.
Recently, all of the GCC countries have launched important initiatives to encourage women's greater participation in society, but most of them address female unemployment. We believe particular attention should be paid to empowering young women by creating opportunities for them to voice their opinions and realise their ambitions.
We believe that change must come from within societies and have a foundation in cultural traditions and social values. At the same time, nations should encourage their female population to fully participate in society's development so as not to be at a disadvantage on many fronts in today's modern world, be they economic, educational, technological, or cultural. It is necessary to recognise women as active agents in society who not only are mainly responsible for running a household and raising children but who also, when time and circumstances permit, participate positively in public life, including the workplace.
In our vision of a new paradigm for GCC youth, officials would begin to develop policies that support the needs and aspirations of women as much as they support those of men. They would also work to change national perceptions about the role of women in GCC society, sending the message that the demands of a modern economy require the productive participation of women and that women represent a largely untapped resource for powering up their economies. A more flexible approach to women's participation in the workforce not only would generate more jobs for women and contribute to national income; it also would reduce the dependence on foreign labour.
The challenge for GCC policymakers is to create programmes that assist young women without upsetting strongly held traditions. It is not easy to design and implement such nuanced policies. But the benefits that would result - in terms of eliminating poverty, increasing literacy, improving public health, developing human capital, and boosting productivity - are worth the effort.
Dr Mona AlMunajjed is senior adviser with Booz & Company's Ideation Center, and Dr Karim Sabbagh is senior partner and the global leader of the communications, media and technology practice at Booz & Company. Chadi Moujaes, a partner, also contributed to this article.