Educating Arab women key to nations’ competitiveness

Following the fourth edition of the Arab Women Leadership Forum, Vision shines a spotlight on the ways in which the most pressing issues are being addressed

Education is crucial to the development of Arab women’s roles in the workforce and their contribution to nations’ competitiveness, thought leaders and panelists agreed as the fourth edition of Arab Women Leadership Forum held in Dubai concluded on 5 November. The forum, which is organised by the Dubai Women Establishment (DWE), typically attracts some 700 women leaders from the region and around the world.

A recent report from UNESCO has ranked the Arab region as the most unequal globally for gender and education. Girls comprise 60 per cent of the total number of children out of school in the Arab world, the highest percentage globally, even when compared to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report.

“We all know that there is a negative image about Arab women internationally and our role is… to change this image through education. If women are well educated they will not let go of their basic rights,” said Mona Al Marri, who chairs Dubai Women Establishment and heads Dubai’s Media Office.

Mona Al Marri
Chairman of DWE Mona Al Marri says education is key to changing perceptions of Arab women in the workplace

For Farrukh Iqbal, Country Director, GCC Countries, Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank, education is the region’s top priority for improving the quality of the labour force. It is very important for Arab countries to provide work opportunities to all women in society, as well as making sure they develop the skills needed in the economy and the workplace, Iqbal said in a panel discussion. Mindset and prevailing social norms make it difficult for women to be seen in leadership roles, he added.

“The way to offset or combat this mindset is education. Teach children so when they grow they will have a different mindset. This will take a long time. Another way is to make it much easier for women to set up their own businesses and over time you'll see a shift in the composition. This may be a better way of obtaining equality than legislation. It has to do with making sure women get financial autonomy and create and lead their own boards,” Iqbal said.

Almost two years ago, the UAE made it mandatory for companies and government agencies to have women on their boards of directors. The decision was announced at the time by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“I think the UAE is trying to create a homegrown model for the region. That is very important. If you have this model it would present a positive picture of the region internationally,” Al Marri said. “Today the UAE is playing that role, focusing mainly on business, human development, education, (and) that’s really important.”

According to the WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2014 that ranked nations globally on gender equality, Kuwait topped the list for the Middle East and North Africa region, followed by the UAE. The UAE, however, closed more than five per cent of its gender gap during the past nine years and achieved the highest percentage change relative to its 2006 score on the Political Empowerment index. It also ranked second best in the Middle East for wage equality and the best in the rate of literacy.

According to Al Marri, some 66 per cent of government employees in the UAE are women, thanks to the progress in education and the skills they acquired.

The forum is an important platform for highlighting challenges facing women in the Arab world and generating a discussion around the most pressing topics, according to Hessa Tahlak, director of development and research at DWE.

During past forums, DWE activated the policy of national childcare centres across the UAE and lobbied behind putting a law in place on a federal level to include women on the boards of companies, said Tahlak. The establishment plans to host the next forum in 2016. DWE’s top tasks these days involve lobbying for legislation and policies for the advancement of women, as well as creating a framework for their development.

“(We are) trying to increase women’s participation in the workforce, having more flexible opportunities, more women-friendly policies that help women contribute more, plus developing them. We ask for instance for having more women on board. If we do not prepare them for being on board they wouldn’t be able to be there. They have to gain it and not just be there because of a quota,” she said.

DWE also proposed a study to address the short maternity leave policy in the country and is “looking forward to having something implemented soon”, according to Tahlak. Maternity leave under UAE law is set at 45 working days with paid leave. By comparison on a global level, Estonia ranks among the top countries for providing the longest leave for women after giving birth, offering almost two years of paid leave, while countries such as Hungary and Lithuania allow for one-and-a-half years or more of fully-paid absence from the workplace.

AWF panel
The panel discussed the the impact that women's education can have on enhancing a nation's competitiveness

“We need to lobby for that, repair it, explain it and have more women as legislators and in decision-making positions,” Tahlak added.

Also attending the forum was Yoko Ishikura, Professor Emeritus at Hitotsubashi University in Japan. She is also an independent consultant in the area of global strategy and global talent and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education and Skills.

“Women's education goes a long way towards enhancing nations' competitiveness,” said Ishikura. “Competitiveness of a country or company depends on knowledge and talent so unless you have that you cannot survive or prosper.”

Ishikura noted that Dubai and the UAE are still growing at a fast pace and witnessing rapid change, which creates opportunities for the young population.
“When the country is growing, the economy is growing, there are so many more opportunities and new opportunities tend to be given to new people. Compared with Japan, which is mature and the population is declining, we don’t have too many positions and there are too many elderly people so we don’t have that many opportunities,” she said.

The UAE’s working age population within the age group of 15 to 64 is projected to increase by more than three per cent between 2015 and 2030, according to a study by Moody’s Investor’s Service. The rate stands in stark contrast to already declining numbers in working age populations across many developed countries including Germany, Japan, Greece and Finland.