Dr Ahmed al Kubaisi, head of Sharia studies at United Arab Emirates University, emphasised the importance of women's participation in the workforce amid concerns over gaps in salaries and career progression between the sexes.
UAE academic calls for more women in workplace
ABU DHABI // A leading academic has emphasised the role of women in society amid concerns over gaps in salaries and career progression between the sexes.
Dr Ahmed al Kubaisi, head of Sharia studies at United Arab Emirates University, emphasised the importance of women's participation in the workforce and its impact on human evolution.
He said Islam equated work with prayer and rewarded both men and women for their contribution to civilisation.
"This remarkable engineering that has beautified the Earth was an achievement made by both men and women," he said. "Women excel in many fields and can also exceed men in many areas."
Dr al Kubaisi's comments followed a lecture he gave to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), organised by its Women's Committee, but experts say his views are not always reflected in the workplace.
Dr Nawar Golley, an associate professor in literary theory and women's studies at the American University of Sharjah, said it was important to define what was meant by the Arab community, because the role of women varied among regions, countries and societies.
For example, figures from a Gender Economic Research and Policy Analysis conference in the US last year showed that Syrian women earned 70 per cent less than men. In the latest version of the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, Syria was ranked 124 and the UAE 103, out of 134 countries. In the Arab world, the UAE was ranked first of 14 countries.
Dr Golley said one of the underlying issues of the wage gap between genders was the traditional view of productivity, which equated it to the time spent in the office. As a result, because of issues such as maternity leave, some employers viewed women as a liability.
"This is a wrong perception," Dr Golley said. "Productivity should not be measured in this manner. Many women actually make it up in different ways, whether it's working later shifts, at weekends etc. It is the definition of productivity that needs to be revisited."
Dr May al Dabbagh, director of the gender and public policy programme at Dubai School of Government, said the social perception of parenthood was a good example of a double standard.
"When male workers become parents, their experience of fatherhood counts as a plus. Their work is viewed as an important contribution to their role as breadwinners," she said. "When female employees become mothers they experience a maternity penalty. They are viewed as less committed to their work and in some cases a liability."
The second major issue is promotion and the glass ceiling. According to figures from the Women in Leadership conference in November, there are three times as many women as men enrolled in tertiary education in the UAE, but only nine per cent of women in the country have management roles.
But in many cases a woman's character can form the strengths of a company, Dr al Dabbagh said.
"While in the past employment may have been tied to physical endurance, feminine skills are in demand in today's service-orientated economies," she said. "Communication, technology and teamwork are all skills demanded by the market and where women have demonstrated a strong capacity to excel. In some cases, more than men."
A recent survey of five countries in the Middle East by YouGov Siraj for the Dubai-based broadcaster Al Aan TV found that 80 per cent of women who are either employed or looking for a job say that career growth opportunities are an extremely important factor when considering joining a particular company.
Another important factor that plays a role in women climbing the corporate ladder is the general perception and stereotypes of the female personality.
"Any company is governed by people," Dr Golley said. "And their perceptions of women will be reflected in the way they treat their female employees."
One solution, she said, is a 360-degree approach that tackles all aspects of people's daily experiences.
"Prejudice and bias is not a modern phenomenon. It happens everywhere, whether at home, at work or in school" she said. "We can start at home because that is where we are conditioned, but even people who are raised with families that ingrain fairness can still demonstrate bias in the future. It needs to be dealt with everywhere at the same time."
“At my previous company I was treated like a secretary,” says Rosol Adel, who worked at an engineering company. “I was always given administrative work, such as translation or filling in time sheets.”
Ms Adel, 23, attributed this treatment to her sex. “Most of the women were either secretaries or given admin work.”
She said she joined the company as an events coordinator, but was constantly given menial tasks. “One of the few women in the company who was an engineer could never go on business trips,” Ms Adel said. “They would actually tell her she couldn’t go because she was a woman and it would be difficult.”
After a year Ms Adel realised there was no growth potential at her firm and decided to join a marketing company in Dubai. “I just got bored and chose to move on where I could use my skills and be appreciated,” she said. Now several months into her new job, she says she is happier. “There are more women in this field and we are recognised for our potential,” she said. She believes the main reason women were treated passively in her previous company was the nature of the industry.
“Because it was engineering, it was perceived that men are better at what they do,” she said. “And many of the countries that we were required to travel to were not stable and therefore unsafe for women.”
However, Ms Adel clearly disagreed with her previous company’s approach.
“It’s not as though the woman would be travelling alone – and either way, that should be a decision made by the woman herself, and not the company.”