x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A workable solution to women's unemployment in the Middle East

Women are already under-represented in the region's workforce, yet are bearing the brunt of rising unemployment. Applying their talents to the private sector could help solve that problem.

The Emirati fashion designer, Aysha Al Dhaheri, at her design office in Al Ain. Her plan is to retire from engineering and work full-time as a fashion designer, she says. Charles Crowell for The National
The Emirati fashion designer, Aysha Al Dhaheri, at her design office in Al Ain. Her plan is to retire from engineering and work full-time as a fashion designer, she says. Charles Crowell for The National

When most of Aysha Al Dhaheri's female colleagues finish their work at Al Ain Municipality they usually spend time with their families, or head to the mall or beauty salon.

But for Ms Al Dhaheri her working day is only half done.

After eight hours poring over building and urban plans in her full-time job as a government engineer, she then turns her skills to designing dresses and abayas.

Ms Al Dhaheri runs her own fashion design business, which absorbs much of her time outside of working hours.

"Fashion design is my main interest, and that's what I've always wanted to do," says the Emirati managing director of Oushi Fashion Designing. "My plan is to retire from engineering and work full-time as a fashion designer."

In a region where female participation in the labour force is only 26 per cent, Ms Al Dhaheri already stands in a minority. That she also works in the private sector makes her even more unusual.

For the majority of women and men who do have jobs, the already-full public sector is the employer of first choice.

Experts say such preferences need to change in the coming years if the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is to make a dent in an average unemployment rate of more than 10 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Among females, joblessness is more than twice as high.

At a time of transition in some parts of the region, the lack of female participation in the labour market is a lost opportunity for governments.

Raising female employment to male working levels would help to boost GDP by 5 per cent in the UAE, according to recent estimates by Booz and Co, a management consultancy. In Egypt, where the percentage of out-of-work females is higher than here, achieving equal male and female employment would bolster growth by 34 per cent, it estimates.

But worryingly, female joblessness is worsening.

"For the region as a whole, female unemployment is high and rising," says Farrukh Iqbal, the Mena director at the World Bank.

"Among the many reasons for this is the fact that more and more females are entering the labour force."

Until recent years, many women were not actively seeking jobs, often because of social or religious reasons. As a result, they were not counted as unemployed.

But as governments have poured money into improving educational standards, the career aspirations of women have risen.

Upon graduation, though, too few have been able to find suitable jobs.

One of the inconsistencies is the often-stronger performance of women versus men in education. In Saudi Arabia, women have higher rates of enrolment in both secondary and higher education than men, a survey in this year's annual Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) revealed.

The trend is even more pronounced in the UAE. Women are more than twice as likely to pursue higher education than men.

But the gains women have made in schools, colleges and universities have not so far been followed up in the workplace.

Levels of female participation in the labour force in Saudi Arabia are among the lowest in the world, according to the WEF's data. Women typically earn a sixth of what men make and are even less likely to be senior officials, managers or professionals. Similarly, in the UAE, women do not tend to fill senior management, professional or technical positions, according to the data.

Booz and Co's research finds a similar trend. Women hold ownership positions in only 20 per cent of businesses in the Mena region, compared with 32 per cent in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and 39 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But the rosy performance of women in education could be misleading, warns Leila Hoteit, a Booz and Co principal in Abu Dhabi and one of the authors of the company's report, Empowering the Third Billion, which was released last month.

"The UAE and Saudi Arabia have pushed their women to study particular fields like teaching or nursing and, unfortunately, that's not what the region needs," she says.

The region needs more jobs in the private sector. Reflecting the lack of female presence in business, only about 9 per cent of women in the Mena region start a company - compared with 19 per cent of men, estimates Booz and Co.

Such statistics will have to change as several oil-importing countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, come under pressure to trim their public-sector wages bill.

"In the past, the public sector used to provide the bulk of the jobs that women took up, but now many countries face fiscal pressures and the public sector is not expanding at the same rate as it was in earlier decades," says Mr Iqbal.

"This is another of the reasons we see educated women looking for work but being unable to obtain jobs."

In the future, more women leaving education will have to follow Ms Al Dhaheri in striving to pursue a career in the private sector.

For that to happen, governments and companies will have to work together to make the private sector a more viable option for women. Extending maternity leave in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to closer to the global average would help, says Ms Hoteit.

But Ms Al Dhaheri sees other steps that governments could take.

"Running a business is challenging as you have to be aware of issues like human resources, meeting with clients and making a deal," she says.

"More could be done to encourage women in business but also to understand the challenges involved."

tarnold@thenational.ae