x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Working women need support, not an early retirement

Society, particularly men, need to be more aware that women can have a career and a healthy family life.

A mother I know told me recently how difficult it is to be a working woman in the UAE. When she was exploring her career options she discovered that they were very limited because she is married and has a one-year-old girl. So before deciding on a job she had to consider working hours and whether childcare facilities would be available.

Eventually she found a position in a government department in Abu Dhabi, and she managed to enrol her child in a private early learning centre. Her employer didn't offer in-house care.

The parental juggling act is far from easy. A federal law states firms must provide on-site childcare when the number of female employees is more than 50, or the number of their children under 4 years is at least 20. But her company is just short of both.

Given these challenges it's no wonder that other women in the UAE might opt to not work when a child comes along. But is this the right way to empower women?

Last week the Federal National Council called for reversing a 2007 law that requires women employed by the federal Government to work for 20 years before retirement. The FNC wants that dropped to 15 years. According to Mossabeh Al Kitbi, an FNC member from Sharjah, reversing the law will "help reduce unemployment as someone else will be able to take a retired woman's position".

It would also help women to "raise their own children themselves rather than relying on a maid", he said.

With all due respect to the FNC and members' desire to make life better for working women in this country, an early retirement scheme for women would not solve unemployment, nor it would reduce the negative impacts of relying on maids to raise children.

What women really need is support from government and society to help pursue careers while being mothers. Employees start families. This is a basic fact that communities need to accept. And so every workplace should support women, especially those who have real potential to reach the top.

Organisations that invest in female employees' training and development would not want to lose them after 15 years of experience, at the time when they reach maturity in their fields and can hold leadership positions. There are other ways to tackle these issues - by reducing barriers to create a more level playing field for women in the workplace.

In 2011 Arabian Child, an advocacy group, conducted the National Early Childhood Development Childcare Study on behalf of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and estimated that out of the UAE's 311 nurseries, about 92 per cent are privately owned. Only 26 were government-sponsored nurseries, meaning that there are few on-site nurseries within the public sector.

The shortage of government and workplace-sponsored nurseries leaves many working mums with three options: quit, take their children to private nurseries, or leave them at home with maids who are, in most cases, unqualified as educators. Increasing the number of public childcare centres would assist many working women, and not force them to choose among these options.

Another way to support women in the workforce could be by extending maternity leave.

The 2008 federal law on human resources states that women who have worked more than one year in a government entity have the right to take a paid maternity leave for a period of 60 days, in addition to two hours a day for breast-feeding.

The maternity leave is even shorter in the private sector, as women can take only 45 days, after working one year in the organisation.

Neither policy stacks up. The Dubai Women Establishment (DWE) studied the length of maternity leave offered in 39 countries and found that only eight of them provided shorter periods than the UAE. The organisation prepared a draft policy on maternity leave and breast-feeding and proposed it to the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources for review, but it remains under discussion, according to DWE.

Delaying any longer would send the wrong message.

Last year, I interviewed an Emirati young man for an article on the social hurdles facing working women. He said that women could not successfully combine work and home life, asking that if married women went to work, who would take care of their children, and where would they be at the time women are working?

Perceptions like these exist widely in our society despite the enormous changes that we have witnessed in the recent years.

Increasing maternity leave and the number of in-house nurseries in workplaces would help women to balance between their family and work, and the negative impacts of relying on unskilled domestic staff would decrease. At the same time, women would continue to work and contribute in the economy, and the county's investment in their education would not go to waste.

Society, particularly men, need to be more aware that women can have a career and a healthy family life. In the UAE, many women have proven that they have the ambition for career development and growth. What these women really need is more options, not early retirement.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui