DUBAI // Putting more women in the boardroom begins in the classroom, a leading equality campaigner has urged.
And Save the Children is paving the way with a landmark schools programme that helps both girls and boys to challenge the roles that may be expected of them by the society in which they grow up.
"The aim is to make girls feel more respected and empowered in communities and get boys to support them in this role," said Soha Ellaithy, a director at the international NGO.
Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, but earn only 10 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of the world's property. In the GCC, women hold only 1.5 per cent of board positions in listed companies and only 22 per cent of UAE government sector board members are Emirati women.
A Cabinet decree last week makes it compulsory for corporations and government organisation to have women on the board. Ms Ellaithy says the issue can be rooted out earlier.
"It can be done by reaching out to young people and changing perceptions towards gender roles and norms," she said.
The Save the Children solution, an 11-week programme called Choices aimed at children aged 10 to 14, is already at work in Egypt and Nepal.
In rural Nepal a survey of attitudes before and after the Choices programme found that after completing the course, 40 per cent fewer boys felt men should have the final word in economic decisions at home.
"From a young age, men are raised to assume an authoritarian role, they control the household and make the financial decisions," said Ms Ellaithy.
Choices, she said, "is about teaching children what respect means and connecting boys to their emotions. Providing them with culturally sensitive alternatives and promoting joint decision making."
Ms Ellaithy was speaking at a seminar last week at the Dubai School of Government. Diana Hamade, an Emirati lawyer from Dubai, agreed with her that real change began with children.
"You do not want laws and quotas where men will ultimately feel discriminated against," she said. "So the concept of equality has to be instilled at a young age so that they can see themselves working together in similar positions."
Women can be put on boards, she said, but their acceptance in those positions was the bigger challenge.
"At the same time you need to ready women for those positions, teach them they are good enough to gain the best education and sit on boards. Without this all efforts will be useless."
Dr Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayed University in Dubai, said awareness sessions should be extended to families for a long-term effect.
"You can pass laws and change the composition of the economy quickly but changing societal values takes a very long time," she said.
"Children may learn it at school but will they be able to practise it if they see an opposition in reality?
"In a patriarchal society, how easy will it be for men to give up their powerful position? You may be able to change beliefs on the surface but not the underlying ideologies."
She said more discussions on the topic should be conducted.
"There needs to be more dialogue in society about treating each other with dignity and respect. Equality will follow."