The Government aims to improve the status of women by encouraging them to enter the workforce in greater numbers.
An equal seat at the table
As one of six women in the UAE who sit on the boards of public companies, Maryam Sharaf is one of the country's highest-ranking businesswomen. And like many of her peers, she thinks the traditional barriers for women have largely vanished. It has been a fast transformation. "Yes, this is a great change here, in a society where women's role used to be marked differently by our social customs" says Ms Sharaf, the group chief financial officer at Dubai World. "But customs change and the UAE never wasted time in bringing about changes."
Manal Shahin, the head of sales, marketing and customer service at the government-owned developer Nakheel, agrees that nowadays, talent counts much more than gender in the race to the top. "Being in a large, innovative and dynamic company would put some extra pressure on an individual because the entire world will be watching, rather than just a few people," she says. "This is the difficult part. But I don't see any obstacles if you possess the capabilities and skills to deal with what's on the road ahead."
The "road ahead" for women has been a huge priority in recent years. The Government has made efforts to improve the status of women by encouraging them to enter the workforce in greater numbers, and putting them in higher positions. Last year, nine women became members of the Federal Government's 40-member legislative advisory arm, and there are two women in the country's cabinet - Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the minister of foreign trade, and Mariam Mohammed Khalfan al Roumi, who was appointed the minister of social affairs in 2006.
So far, these efforts have usually been cast as good social policy. Increasingly, though, companies and governments in the Middle East are understanding that elevating women is as much a boon for the economy as it is an ethical imperative. "I think having two women in the ministerial cabinet and many others within high-ranking management positions demonstrates the importance that the UAE places on the role of women in the growth of the country's economy," Ms Shahin says.
Two recent reports - one from The National Investor, an investment bank in Abu Dhabi, and another from Gulf Investment Corporation (GIC) in Kuwait - appear to back up that notion. National women remain a major untapped resource in the GCC that could be better exploited, they argue. In "Growing Beyond Oil", the GIC report, gender equality in the labour force was cited as a key recommendation for GCC countries as they crept towards the post-oil era.
The report advised "fixing the most critical labour market deficiencies through tackling skill mismatches among nationals, low participation (especially of women), unemployment and heavy dependence on expatriates". As Ms Shahin says, there have been positive signs in recent years: national women have consistently outperformed their male counterparts in the UAE's schools, and most years make up over 65 per cent of Government higher education enrolments. Yet their labour force participation remains low, at 16.5 per cent in 2005, the most recent number available.
The problem has been that, while women dominate Government education, they do not go on to take jobs at nearly the same rate as men. And women's predominance in local higher education may be due largely to the fact that many families send their sons away to prestigious Western institutions, while keeping their daughters closer to home. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the co-author of Women Mean Business, a book about the economic importance of women in the workforce, said on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi that, while the UAE Government had made great strides by encouraging female participation, much remained to be done.
"In places like the UAE," she said, "where you have 70 per cent of graduates who are women, the fact that there are so few of them working ... has costs for both the society and the economy." The book concluded that policies like the ones adopted in the UAE - bolstering educational institutions and funding emiratisation programmes that provide clear pathways to a job - are better drivers of reform than attempts to break down social barriers.
"You have to change policy first," she said, "and if you change policy, women flood in - which is what the UAE is doing. If they're going to wait for the culture here to shift, they'll wait a long time." The point, she said, was that change could happen and was happening, despite long-standing traditions that once kept women at home. But getting more women to work is only one side of the equality equation. The other side - promoting women to positions of power - has proven equally tricky in the GCC.
A report in May from The National Investor, in conjunction with the corporate governance institute, Hawkamah, found that women occupied just 1.5 per cent of corporate board seats in the GCC. In the UAE, the figure was about 0.8 per cent. "For me, involving women is sine qua non," says Nasser Saidi, the executive director of Hawkamah and the chief economist at the Dubai International Financial Centre. "It's elementary, in the sense that we invest in our women and they are part of our human capital. If you look at women and their educational attainment, we know that they do at least as well, if not better, than men in terms of achievement, and yet they haven't participated in the workforce."
He adds that greater participation by women means that "the returns on human capital will increase, and the amount of knowledge in our economies will increase". "Quite apart from the social aspect, the economic aspects of including women are more important in terms of growth, in terms of productivity and in terms of efficiency and knowledge." Women tend to gravitate towards professions in the services sector, banking and information technology, where there is a combination of interpersonal interaction and flexibility that allows them to stay home and raise families if they choose to. Economists say that more vocational schools and programmes that take these tendencies into account could help correct the UAE's labour imbalance.
But while the Government has made strides, convincing the private sector in the UAE to elevate women is perhaps the most difficult job, since corporations do not have the same direct responsibility to take care of citizens. "In the public sector, equality in benefits seems to be a fact," says Katty Marmenout, a researcher with the international business school, Insead, which has a campus in Abu Dhabi. "In the private sector, however, women's benefits are still dependent on their husbands' contracts, and childcare facilities or allowances for childcare are still not in place, which makes it costly for women to engage full-time in the workforce."
Similar differences in the treatment of women still exist in the West, but it is increasingly evident that correcting them here is crucial for the region in the long run. Indeed, policies that bring more women to the table in business may no longer simply be a question of equality: it may be a question of economic success. Luckily for the UAE, many of the key pieces already seem to be in place and it may be only a matter of time before women begin to assume positions of power in greater numbers. If Ms Shahin is right, that time might not be far off.
"Encouraging more women to join the workforce is one of my greatest pleasures," she says. "I personally feel that the number of women we have currently working in important positions in the UAE is higher than many people expected it would be." firstname.lastname@example.org