Leveling the playing field

Moving towards gender equality in the Arab world

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Economic development and betterment are at the forefront of countries’ goals on a global scale. Governments’ desire to create stability within countries allow them to explore different archetypes. Some have argued that the level of a country’s progression and economic development is measurable by the level of advancement of women in society. Such advancement is inextricably linked to a society’s evolution and has produced great result on all levels — the developments of families, communities and countries — the systemic core.

The Council of Europe’s Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland, a Norwegian politician, has described women’s role in society as the “strongest transformative force in the world today”, a view held by many politicians. Gender equality is imperative to ensure economic opportunity and development. One of the key objectives is the creation of gender equality in employment. It is believed that this will have great implications for the world’s economy as a whole — for the better. Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt said in his address at the 66th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly  in 2011 that “equality between men and women in employment would boost American GDP [gross domestic product] by as much as 9 percent, the euro zone by 13 percent and Japanese GDP by 16 percent.” 

These statistics are significant and they evidence a political theme that has been trending for the last few years. Some have referred to this movement as “an investment for the future generations”. Statistics have demonstrated that the greater women’s role is in society, the greater the improvements in the public good and reduction in corruption. Yet the question remains how accurate is this elevation in practice and whether governments and legislative bodies are truly supporting this new social structure at the very core.

Pillars of equality

It is undeniable that the European Union position on gender equality is advanced. The European Commission’s policies have been prioritized through several action plans and strategies such as economic independence, equality in decision making, dignity and integrity to name a few. From a legislative perspective, the Treaty of Rome (1957) describes gender equality as a fundamental pillar of the EU and various directives namely.

Legislation has been very important in women’s empowerment but it is not the only significant factor. The increase in the women’s workforce has been a catalyst and promoter of a remarkable societal transformation, which has worked hand in hand with economic growth. Recognition of the increase of the number of women in the workforce has encouraged the public and private sectors to develop retention strategies as well as maximization on progression within the relevant organization. Maternity and parenting policies have become key elements in the outlook of companies to ensure a balanced approach between working mothers and the work environment.

Specifically, the issue of diversity at the board level has been a point of discussion among politicians, shareholders and regulators. Legislative proposals to augment the participation of women at senior level, especially at board level, have been introduced and have turned into reality in countries such as Norway, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Iceland.

Diversity at board level has been a widely debated topic and there are diverging views on how to achieve this most effectively. Supporters believe that companies should be forced to introduce quotas of women’s representation on boards throughout the European Union and specifically in the United Kingdom. Countries such as Norway and France have implemented this approach successfully and can be viewed as model countries. 

Yet opponents argue that quotas are counterproductive as they focus on ‘filling numbers’ rather than on a qualitative approach. They argue that the focus should be on how women should create value via merit, and business leaders should drive the diversity approach through affirmative action. Another fundamental question is whether greater women’s representation at board level does increase “performance”. The statistical data is currently being compiled but it does appear that “at the global level, larger companies are found to have more women on their boards, probably due to their high visibility and consequently outside pressure for greater diversity”, according to the Lord Davies Progress Report, a UK government backed report that set a target for a minimum of 25 percent female board representation in FTSE-100 companies by 2015.

Overall, a lot of impetus has been made at EU level on gender equality. The debate of greater diversity at the board level is emphasizing the challenges that are still being faced and how a better gender balance can be achieved at all organizational levels. 

Transition in progress

One of the most influential business women in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Raja al-Gurg, based in Dubai, UAE, has upon the author’s request summarized the position of women in the Gulf as follows: “Women across the GCC have been making rapid strides in the political, social, economic and business domains over the last few decades, thanks mainly to the increasing focus on women empowerment by the governments and organizations in the region. We are fortunate to have several illustrious women in the GCC who have demonstrated remarkable leadership qualities. They have shown that opportunities for leadership in every sphere are growing across the region and can be capitalized on by women with enough motivation, dedication and vision. We should follow the lead of admirable people and avoid setting limits to what we can dream and achieve.“ 

Dubai, in particular, is being very active in promoting Arab women’s leadership and progress. The appointment of women ministers such as Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, the United Arab Emirates’ first female minister, and Reem al-Hashimy, minister of state in the UAE Cabinet since 2008, are renowned examples of the achievements of Emirati women. 

The progress cited in Gurg’s powerful statement also extends to the public administration and corporate realm. In a similar fashion to Europe, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE made it mandatory for government agencies and corporations to include women at board level across the country. This was a landmark decision and a first of its kind in the Arab world. Such a legislative measure has consolidated the position of Emirati women and is encouraging their substantial contribution to the economy. 

The rise of women in the UAE professional environment has been incremental and should serve as a  model for the region as a whole. The female literacy rate in the UAE is 91 percent and female labor force participation is 43 percent. Of those working as ministers in the UAE, 17 percent are women. In short, UAE women have become a force to be reckoned with. 

Other countries in the GCC are moving in their own ways to empower women. Notably, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud appointed 30 women to the Majlis Shura, the kingdom’s consultative council. This is a revolutionary step signaling recognition of the importance of women in Saudi society and evidencing the desire for change. This decision is also clearly linked to the country’s drive to transform Saudi Arabia into a world class economy. This jump cannot be achieved unless the full potential of the Saudi women’s work force is recognized and even more reforms are introduced. 

In the past 80 years, the role of women has undergone a radical transformation. “If women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity, and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere,” as Hillary Clinton said in her farewell speech as the Secretary of State of the United States earlier this year. She added that “promoting equal rights for women and girls around the world is not only a moral issue but an economic issue and a security issue.”While gender equality is largely in its infant stages across the GCC and elsewhere,  the progress of women in these past decades has arguably become unstoppable. 


Nicole Purin is senior legal counsel at Standard Chartered Bank in the UAE. The views in the article represent those of the author, not of Standard Chartered.

Nicole Purin

Nicole Purin is a legal and finance expert based in the United Arab Emirates.