Closing the Gulf’s gender gap

Female participation in the workplace has been a key development marker for many Gulf states in recent years, but how much are things changing?



Each year on March 8, International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the globe.

Throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council, numerous events, initiatives and ceremonies take place to acknowledge and honour the role of women in the region – not least in the business world, where women have steadily made greater and greater impact over the passing years.

And with the aims and goals of high-profile national plans such as the UAE’s Vision 2021 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 encouraging the participation of women in the workplace, it would appear there is more to come for and from women in the GCC’s business world.

Part of the UAE’s Vision is to become one of the top 25 countries in the world for gender equality by 2021 – aided by initiatives such as the UAE Gender Balance Council and the UAE Gender Inequality Index, helping to make it an equal rights country by 2021.

For Saudi Arabia’s part, Vision 2030 set out a very clear target to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030, along with other ambitions. On a socio-economic level the kingdom has already announced major changes for women, including lifting the ban on women drivers, allowing women to attend football matches, and launching childcare programmes to help women take up employment among the recent developments.

Read: Lack of women in Middle East workforce hinders growth

Elsewhere in the region, Bahrain has already seen the effects of its 2030 Economic Vision, launched in 2008, with the contribution of Bahraini women to the economy increasing at around 5 per cent each year as it moves towards its target of 45.6 per cent by 2020. In the process, the average monthly salary for women increased by around 23 per cent in the public sector and 12 per cent in the private sector between 2010 and 2015, and more women have been appointed to decision-making positions in judicial, executive and governmental roles.

There has also been a lot of change in Kuwait, where a series of programmes aimed at women are a key part of its Vision 2035 – dubbed ‘New Kuwait’ – as the emirate looks to spend KWD1.2m ($4m) on developing women’s skills and boosting their economic participation.

Indeed, across the GCC there has been a concerted effort to enhance the role of women. And from a business perspective, it is clear to see where the benefits lie.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, if women played an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion – or 26 per cent – could be added to the global annual gross domestic product by 2025.

Some $2.7 trillion could be added to the regional GDP by the same year, according to the report, meaning a 47 per cent increase in GDP over a decade. Saudi Arabia would benefit to the tune of an extra $52bn.

But there remain some long-standing and stubborn challenges that are preventing growth in female participation.

The 2017 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Company stated, “women remain significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline”, adding: “From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at entry level. At every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines.

“This disparity is not due to company-level attrition or lack of interest: women and men stay at companies and ask for promotions at similar rates.”

The report looks specifically at the US, but it encapsulates a global trend that has led to some frightening statistics. At last year’s World Economic Forum, for example, the WEF report on the global gender gap revealed that it would take 217 years to achieve equality in the workplace.

Read: UAE, Bahrain, Saudi rise, Kuwait, Qatar fall in gender equality ranking

The report showed that no country in the world had fully closed its economic gender gap, though 13 were getting close, narrowing it to 80 per cent or more. Burundi was the best of the bunch having closed 91 per cent of the gender gap, with Barbados, the Bahamas and Benin close behind on 88 per cent, 87 per cent and 86 per cent respectively. The average was 58 per cent – down from 59 per cent in 2016 and 2015.

The UAE came in 130th place at 45.9 per cent; Saudi Arabia 142nd at 32 per cent; Bahrain 120th at 53.7 per cent; and Kuwait 125th at 51.8 per cent.

Similarly, the World Bank estimates that the UAE’s female labour participation rate for 2017 was 41 per cent, compared to the global average of 49 per cent. Saudi Arabia stood at 22 per cent, Bahrain 44 per cent, Kuwait 47 per cent and Oman 30 per cent.

Recently, however, the tide has started to turn, and studies are showing improvements for women in workplaces across the Middle East and North Africa.

A survey by YouGov and Bayt.com in December last year, for example, found that more than three in four women in the UAE believe that job offers are based entirely on experience and qualifications, regardless of gender.

Meanwhile, a September 2017 report by Boston Consulting Group entitled How Organisations in the Middle East Can Stretch their Diversity Spend highlighted that more than 60 per cent of employees at a Saudi energy firm recognised the progress made by their employer in the previous one to three years in improving gender diversity.

The same report showed that one financial institution in the kingdom also reduced female turnover from almost 30 per cent to 13 per cent in 2015 after setting targets for recruiting and retraining women.

There is also a growing number of women starting and running their own businesses. An Al Masah Capital Report from 2016 revealed that women in the GCC led SMEs worth Dhs1.4 trillion ($385bn), with female business owners in the region rising from 4 per cent to 10 per cent between 2011-14.
This number is sure to increase after Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement that Saudi women do not need the permission of a male guardian to start their own business.

Ministry of Commerce and Investment spokesperson Abdul Rahman Al Hussein tweeted: “No need for a guardian’s permission. Saudi women are free to start their own business freely”.

Women will also be able to found a company electronically rather than visiting a notary to document the founding.

And with maternity laws being continually reviewed, mentoring and support programmes growing in number, and diversification plans opening up more job opportunities to women than ever before, things are looking promising for the future.

A key part of this future will be encouraging and promoting women in key leadership roles – something that starts from a young age. And the signs are good, with female graduates outnumbering men, and 70 per cent of Emiratis in federal higher education institutions being women.

In an interview with tahawultech.com, the UAE’s minister of state for higher education and advanced skills, HE Dr Ahmad bin Abdullah Humaid Belhoul Al Falasi, said that women are outdoing men in education, making them prime candidates for future roles.

“We talk about the gender gap globally, but in the UAE, women perform better academically, and right now are far more employable than men because they are more focused,” he said.

The private sector is also putting its energies into preparing young women for executive roles. The Emirates NBD E7 Daughters of the Emirates programme is a prime example; training and mentoring young women aged 18-25 to become future leaders.

There are also an increasing number of role models across the GCC – most notably in Saudi Arabia where the likes of Princess Reema bint Bandar and Noura bint Saleh Alturki have been appointed as the first female president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports and the vice president of the Saudi Shooting Federation respectively.

Early last year Rania Nashar was named CEO of Samba Financial Group, becoming the first female CEO of a listed Saudi commercial bank, and this year the Administrative Appeals Court in the kingdom’s Eastern Province has also appointed its first female arbitrator in a commercial case – Shaimaa Sadeq Al Jibran – highlighting a shift in attitudes towards women in high profile positions.

It’s a region-wide push that has been supported at governmental level, through such organisations as the Dubai Women Establishment and its UAE Women Leadership Programme, and Kuwait’s General Secretariat of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development.

There may still be some way to go, but there are clear signs that a proactive and progressive environment is being built by and for women in many parts of the GCC.

The key now must be to not only reach a point where the gender gap is closed and female participation is high, but to where women’s presence and success in the workplace is regarded the norm, not an anomaly.