Women, Work, And Economics

Is womenomics taking root in the gulf enough to break the region’s glass ceiling?



The participation rate of women in the global workforce has historically been negligible if even growing gradually.

However that paradigm has been changing rapidly over the last few years with the global female demographic transforming itself into an economic engine. Experts have called this paradigm shift in economic influence as womenomics, a term coined by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman to explain the newfound power that women exert and the leverage they bring to a business and subsequently the economy.

In the UK, for example, figures revealed that women are responsible for 83 per cent of all purchases, with 60 per cent of the female population playing a dominant role in purchasing a car and 55 per cent found to control the purchase of home computers.

But womenomics is not a concept that is taking root in just developed western nations – it has been prevalent in the islamic world, especially the Middle East, too.

growing economic power

“There are 1.7 billion people in the islamic world – half of them are women – about 900 million and the rate of change in terms of empowerment is quite incredible. What the US achieved in 50 years, the Muslim world is doing in 10 to 20 years,” Tariq Qureshiy, CEO of Vantage holdings, a UAE-based boutique consulting firm, said in his opening remarks during a panel at the Women in Leadership (WIL) forum in Dubai.

A major factor spurring this change is the popularity of higher education among women in the region, especially within the 15 to 35 age group. in the UAE alone, about 70 per cent of college graduates are women, while 60 per cent of the government workforce is female, a third of which are in senior positions.

But what has tilted the scales in favour of women in the region further is their growing economic power.

According to a report by research firm Boston Consulting Group, women in the Middle East control about $500 billion in wealth, in turn wielding power. Most of the wealth under their control was inherited from their families in the form of cash or other assets, research showed.

Due to a lack of financial literacy, women had previously relinquished the management of these assets to a male relative, but this trend is rapidly changing as female education levels increase.

“Around 25 years ago when I started off, I dealt a lot with family businesses in the region,” said Maha Al Ghunaim, group CEO of Global Investment House, a Kuwait-based investment firm.

“You would never see a daughter in the meeting. It was always the fathers, sons and sons-in law who would come in, but today in many of the meetings, whether it is in the UAE, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, the daughter is sitting shoulder
to shoulder by her brother and taking her responsibilities very seriously. They are a small ratio but they are still there.”

ARE WOMEN REALLY THERE?

A major contributor to female empowerment in the Gulf are government initiatives. In a landmark step in 2012, the UAE passed a ruling that mandated the presence of a woman on the board of every federal government agency.

The UAE is now planning to take this ruling a step further, with regulation to place a woman on the board of every publicly listed government firm under consideration, the UAE’s minister of Economy Sultan Saeed Al Mansouri said on the sidelines of WIL.

Saudi Arabia too has taken positive steps in this direction, albeit on a different scale, issuing decrees mandating all shops that sell women’s accessories like shoes, bags and perfumes, or apparel like lingerie, be staffed by women only.

However, despite such initiatives and an extremely high literacy rate among women in the Gulf, the transition to workforce participation is still dismally slow.

Female participation in the workforce in the GCC region is just 26.9 per cent, nearly half the world average at 51.7 per cent, as per a report cited by UAE-based alternative investment firm Al Masah Capital. The difference is larger when compared to developed countries such as the US (58 per cent), the UK (55 per cent) and Germany (53 per cent).

Top female corporate executives in the region have attributed this low participation rate to a lack of women leaders able to encourage more women to enter work and help deal with the restricting cultural ethos.

“When you have men in power vs women in power, they priortise different things and spend on different things,” said Nisreen Shocair, president, Virgin Middle East and North Africa.

“When women are in power, they spend more on education, more on healthcare and on sustainability projects. Women (in senior positions) can put rules in place to address problems (faced by women) that we are going through
in the MENA region …and can have a direct impact on their well being.”

Shocair said that the region should also address the low retention rate of women in labour force, especially at mid- management level.

“The rate of optout is what we need to focus on. If a company is not ready to introduce new rules and regulations to allow them to work from home or flexible times, then they are going to go,” she said.

“That is something to be taken into account in major companies and SMEs. When women reach a certain level they need the policy support.”

Technology could be key in reintegrating women who had to take a break from their careers due to unfavourable work policies, said Al Ghunaim, particularly with workforce mobility developments allowing them to work from home.

The executive said that technology could also play a larger role in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has pronounced social barriers against women working.

“It is very challenging to create that right atmosphere at work and it is very challenging for the private sector to actually create segregated space for women. But we can utilise this segment through technology across our region.”