How the UAE and Saudi Arabia are expanding the representation of women in the workplace

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– Efforts under way to increase the number of women in the workforce

– Examining the impact of reforms introduced in the UAE

– Employment, entrepreneurship and education opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia

More female employees are joining workplaces and boardrooms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with gender equality a key target of a regional drive to improve environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. While measurable progress has been achieved in recent years, there is room for further improvement in order to consolidate these changes into a lasting and broad-based transformation.

Reform efforts bear fruit

The UAE has worked for years to boost women’s participation in the workforce, guided by the Gender Balance Council.

In 2019 the country implemented a series of reforms, including the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment and the removal of sector-based job restrictions for women.

More recently, in 2021 a broad-based reform package was implemented that included the MENA region’s first provision of paid parental leave in the private sector – available to both female and male employees – and labour legislation was amended to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

Such initiatives have begun to pay off. The World Bank’s annual “Women, Business and the Law” report measures economic opportunities in 190 countries through eight indicators – such as workplace, pay, entrepreneurship and assets – that reflect women’s interactions with the law during their careers.

The 2021 report found that the UAE performed better than any other country in the MENA region. Having made a “significant leap by virtue of ground-breaking legislative reforms implemented over the past few years”, the UAE scored 82.5 out of 100 points – on a par with Turkey, and just above Colombia and Japan – compared to 56 points in 2020 and 30 points in 2019.

Moreover, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 18th out of 189 countries globally for its efforts to advance women’s rights – up from 26th in 2019 – in the UN Development Programme’s gender inequality index in its “2020 Human Development Report”.

Changes are also being seen in boardrooms.

In August it was announced that 19 listed companies in the UAE – among them Emaar Properties, Dubai’s largest listed developer – had appointed female board members in line with a mandate issued earlier this year by the Securities and Commodities Authority to give women a greater role on the boards of listed firms. An additional 111 companies are set to appoint a female board member by the first quarter of 2022.

Such top-down change is key to driving broader societal shifts.

“[ESG considerations] must be addressed at the boardroom level, and more effort is needed to bridge the disconnect between male and female circles to include women leaders,” Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based Alliances for Global Sustainability, told OBG. 

Saudi Arabia’s multidimensional approach

The Kingdom is also working to increase female representation in the workforce.

“Saudi Arabia recognises that it has a large, untapped pool of talent. There is plenty of work being done to leverage this asset, as empowering women is a goal of Vision 2030,” Lilac Ahmad Al Safad, president of the Saudi Electronic University (SEU), told OBG.

In recent years the country implemented a raft of measures designed to expand women’s economic inclusion. These have ranged from allowing women to drive cars, to changes in labour and family law.

The changes have helped to achieve measurable results: more than 51,000 Saudi women joined the job market in 2020, and the Kingdom aims to provide jobs to around 1m women by 2030.

The World Bank report awarded Saudi Arabia 80 points out of 100, slightly below the UAE and on a par with Chile.

In addition to expanding participation in the workplace, the new measures aim to boost entrepreneurship among women.

“Micro-businesses are an often-overlooked segment of economy, despite generating a notably positive social impact – particularly in relation to the economic empowerment of women,” Ibrahim Al Rashid, CEO of the Kingdom’s Social Development Bank, told OBG. “However, Saudi Arabia is increasingly paying attention to the segment.”

Indeed, the number of female entrepreneurs in the Kingdom is reported to have increased by 50% in 2019, while a 2020/21 report by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that the highest rates of entrepreneurial intentions among women were reported in MENA, with Saudi female entrepreneurs driving this trend.

Looking to the talent pipeline, more young Saudi women are opting to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and 38% of Saudi STEM graduates are women.

In some fields this share is higher: according to UNESCO, 59% of students enrolled in computer science in Saudi Arabia are women, compared to 14% and 16% in the US and the UK, respectively.

The SEU’s Al Safadi was appointed president of the institution in 2020, becoming the first female president of a Saudi co-educational university. This month the SEU launched WEmpower, a women's research accelerator, to give female faculty and postgraduate students a chance to learn from research experts.

While women remain a minority in STEM-based professions, it would seem that the balance is beginning to change.

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