x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The gender gap and the women who fall through it

Emirati women might be leading the way in the region, but they face obstacles that range from unconscious bias of others to lacking the confidence to meet their potential.

There have been two contradictory events in society recently. The first was when a member of the Federal National Council said in a high-level national discussion that unmarried women are creating a “financial burden” because they’re not doing their job of “bearing or producing any children”. The second was the UAE ranking first in the Middle East, and 37th worldwide, for treating women with respect in the Social Progress Index, in data released by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council.

The government’s message is loud and clear: women’s rights should be respected. As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, put it: “We have the deepest respect for women. We respect their sacrifices and their dedication as partners in the building of our nation.”

His words have been interpreted to mean a continuous effort to address the gender gap, leading to remarkable structural changes.

On the other hand, the FNC member’s controversial comments towards women represent an idea that I fear is held by many men, and even women, in this society, even after women joined the workforce.

The intention behind such comments could be good. He and those who share his views could genuinely be thinking about the interest of women from their own perspective, but might be unaware of the prejudicial impact of such constricting ideas on women.

The idea that, as the FNC member put it, “the man is responsible outside the house to provide all expenses for each wife and family of his, and the woman carries more responsibility inside the house”, is a traditional notion that persists in many societies around the world, if not now then often quite recently. The sole responsibility of women had been determined to be staying home and raising children.

It’s also common for people to have predetermined expectations of the two genders.

Men are typically labelled as being tough, strong, assertive, forceful, dominant and independent. Women are more often associated with a set of traits labelled “communal”, such as soft, caring, fearful, sentimental and submissive.

In her paper, Getting to Grips With Unconscious Bias, Dr Karen Morley discussed the “unconscious gender schema” that many people learn so early and so thoroughly that they become oblivious to it. As she put it, this reaches the extent where, if we ever reflect on it, it seems the “natural order of things”.

“Gender schema is learnt early, thoroughly, stored in memory and accessed without awareness,” she explains.

“What most people are unaware of is that we have an interesting duality of beliefs: our conscious and unconscious beliefs are quite likely to contradict each other.

“That’s particularly the case for contentious issues, like gender and race. It applies to people who believe themselves to be egalitarian: conscious egalitarian beliefs coexist with unconscious bias in the same person. In general, what we say represents our conscious beliefs, while what we do, particularly our non-verbal behaviour, is more representative of our unconscious beliefs,” she explains.

The “gender schema” is reflected in the way women behave and view themselves. Studies had found that women have lower confidence and that can lead to inaction.

Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, discusses how women’s self-doubt and the preconceived notions about their own ability can have devastating effect on their lives, especially in the workplace.

But why does it occur among women rather than men?

In a column in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti suggested: “The ‘confidence gap’ is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.”

When UAE women hear comments, such as the one said at the FNC about being a burden, many of them will undoubtedly question – whether consciously or unconsciously – their abilities to do more than raising children, and that can have a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. To tackle this kind of cultural bias, we need to be aware of it first, before anything else.

I’m proud of the achievements that UAE women have made and are still making every day.

I’m also grateful of the constant support by the government to empower women. However, we should always look not only at how far we have come, but also how much further we can still reach.

The fact that we have made great progress in terms of narrowing the gender gap should not lead us into complacency, thinking that the required progress has been made and that no further efforts are necessary. We might have moved beyond conscious discrimination, but we still face an unconscious bias against women.

aalmazroui@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui