x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Gender quotas must be followed by meritocracy

The UAE needs affirmative action for women at the highest levels of professional life. At the same time, the implementation should also encourage a meritocracy.

The UAE is leading the GCC in terms of women's participation in the workforce - 59 per cent of Emirati women have jobs, followed by Kuwait at 42.5 per cent, Qatar at 36.4 per cent and Bahrain at 34.3 per cent, according to figures released in a report by the consultancy Booz & Company.

However, women remain under-represented at the level of top management. Statistics shows that women hold only 1.5 per cent of board positions in listed companies across the GCC. The disconnect between the overall employment numbers and the opportunities at the highest professional levels is obvious.

As The National has reported over the past two days, the Federal Cabinet has approved a policy that mandates the inclusion of women in the boards of directors of every corporation and government agency. By making this decision, the UAE has moved another step forward to empower women in the public sphere, becoming one of only a few countries with such far-reaching regulations.

The decision recognises the social and cultural challenges facing professional women on their way up the corporate ladder. Already the emphasis has been to empower women by providing them with educational opportunities - which is then matched after university by priority hiring for some jobs.

This latest decision is another strong move to break the glass ceiling. The statistics show that - in the near term - such positive discrimination is necessary to put more women into leadership roles and, by doing so, begin to shift the culture that generally favours men at that level.

The full details of the new policy have yet to be revealed, but the sheer scope - affecting so many companies and agencies - will help to shape the corporate culture in the country.

So it is essential that the policy is implemented carefully and systematically. While quotas are an important short-term remedy, a meritocracy must take hold - in which people are promoted based on their achievements and capabilities. The myth has been that women and men have different capabilities, but their education and professional achievements tell a different story.

Women have already shown they are up to the challenges of the working world. This new rule will give them the opportunity, and they can take it from there.