Interview: Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

What more needs to be done in terms of policy to encourage Emirati women to play a more active part in Dubai’s economy?

SHEIKHA MANAL BINT MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM: The UAE today leads both the region and the world in terms of the key indicators of women’s empowerment. Globally, it is ranked first for its literacy rate and enrolment in secondary education, and number one for treating women with respect. Today, women make up 47% of the workforce in the UAE, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest “Global Gender Gap” report. When compared to 3.4% in 1975, this reflects the significant change in women’s roles and the rapid progress they have achieved in the past few decades.

Eight women serve in the UAE Cabinet. One of them is Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance, who was recognised by Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. We have women prominently represented in every area, including in our diplomatic corps and security forces. Women account for two-thirds of government jobs and almost a third of decision-making positions in government. They also make up 20% of the diplomatic corps.

At the same time, the leadership has recognised the importance of enabling UAE women to continue playing the important role of raising their families. The government has progressive policies in place to enable them to maintain a strong work-life balance. International best practices have been introduced in many areas, for example through policies for flexible working hours, maternity and nursery care.

Developing government policies is a crucial step to ensure that women are able not only to participate fully in the workforce, but also to be represented in all roles across the workforce. The UAE is the first country to mandate female representation on company boards and the first Arab country to establish a government entity – the UAE Gender Balance Council – dedicated to reducing the gender gap and enhancing the UAE’s global ranking. These actions position the UAE as a model for gender balance.

Do you envisage a time when the women of the region will be playing a much greater role in traditionally male-dominated industries?

SHEIKHA MANAL: The UAE has always worked to break down barriers between genders. Women hold 66% of all public sector jobs, and there is now a greater representation of women in the UAE cabinet.

With the support of our leadership, there has been an increased focus on improving the education of women from a young age across a wide range of disciplines such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), which were traditionally male-dominated areas. Emirati women currently represent 71% of all graduates and 50.7% of the country’s graduates in STEM subjects. This is creating opportunities for careers in fields and industries that were previously male-dominated. Education is also breaking barriers to leadership in business, politics, literature and the arts for qualified women.

As the government continues to actively promote gender diversity in the workplace and create the right opportunities to empower women in society, we have reached a stage where we are now uncovering fresh new paths to gender equality.

The first-ever Women’s Forum in the MENA region occurred in 2016. What were the key findings of this event and how are they shaping policy?

SHEIKHA MANAL: We were honoured to host Global Women’s Forum Dubai, the first international Women’s Forum meeting in the MENA region, which succeeded in breaking down barriers to cross-cultural cooperation, driving forward the debate for women’s engagement and bringing the women’s empowerment agenda to the forefront, highlighting the achievements and progress of influential women across the globe. The Global Women’s Forum Dubai was also a crucial platform to showcase the capabilities and achievements of strong, talented and pioneering Arab women on a global stage.

We welcomed over 3000 participants, who included many influential leaders, speakers and prominent figures from the public and private sectors in more than 70 countries. A total of 46 sessions and workshops were held over two days, and the outcomes of these discussions contributed to the development of innovative ideas, practical actions and concrete plans to encourage, inspire and empower future generations of women across the world to make positive contributions to social and economic development. For example, there were many ideas discussed in key areas like encouraging innovation among women, enhancing women-friendly infrastructure and legislation focused on women’s specific needs.

The success of this event is testament to the significant strides the UAE has made in improving gender equality and female participation. I’m sure each country took away a number of ideas for innovative new approaches and policies to drive women’s development. Here in the UAE, we are continuing to drive this momentum as we shape our thinking on new women-related policies for the nation.

How can companies in the region achieve a more equitable gender balance in their board rooms?

SHEIKHA MANAL: The representation and contribution of women as members of UAE boards of directors has increased significantly in recent years. However, much more needs to be done.

Women must lead companies and boardrooms, and businesses and organisations need to address this imbalance at the corporate level by breaking down cultural barriers and providing leadership and training opportunities for women rising to board-level positions. Counteracting these barriers can demonstrate that they are as good as their male counterparts and that they have earned these positions on the strength of their own talent and ability.

In 2015, we collaborated with Hawkamah, the Institute for Corporate Governance, to launch the Women Directors Programme, which supports efforts to promote gender balance across various sectors and increase the participation of women in leadership positions. Initiatives such as these are vital to achieving greater gender balance in the board room.

In what ways do you promote the role of Emiratis in art and sport, and how can this create opportunities for the broader economy of Dubai?

SHEIKHA MANAL: I believe the overall social and cultural development of the community is a key factor in achieving sustainable economic growth, and I have led many initiatives to help realise this. The Cultural Office, established in 2013, launched numerous arts initiatives, such as the annual Sheikha Manal Young Artist Award in 2006, a visual arts competition designed to promote young emerging UAE artists and build a sustainable and thriving arts community. We also organise the highly anticipated ComiQ exhibition to nurture the development of talented young Emirati artists and showcase their works. Our international programmes include initiatives such as the Sheikha Manal Art Exchange Programme, and art exhibitions such as the “Pieces for Peace” CITY arts project and “The Reflective Mirror” art exhibition held under the theme of “Expression of Womanhood” at the UN headquarters in New York.

My personal vision is to see increased opportunities in creativity and innovation that will drive community engagement across sectors. By creating opportunities in areas such as the arts and sports, we encourage and inspire others to pursue their own creative and innovative pursuits, which can ultimately benefit and enrich the lives of all generations across the UAE.