Over half of university students in the Gulf Cooperation Council are women,
yet female participation in the workforce stands at less than
Only months after graduating, Fatima is working on her employer's major sponsorship programme. The 26-year-old Emirati, who gained a bachelor's degree in Marketing in Dubai in 2011, now plans to get a master's degree. But she wasn't always this ambitious.
"Before, I didn't think about work. I thought work was for men and women raised families, but seeing other women working, it encouraged me," she says. "Now I like to work, even after marriage." Her decision to work is not based on financial considerations. "When you are at home, you're doing nothing and I would lose my confidence," says Fatima, who did not want her last name to be used. The transformation of Fatima's opinion about the role of women in the jobs market is encouraging for the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as each seeks ways to reduce its dependency on oil and natural gas and increase the participation of its nationals to make it less reliant on expatriate workers. Moreover, the GCC nations are eager to get returns on their significant investment in educating women.
The GCC countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have made great strides in educating women. A recent study, Maximising GCC Women's Employment and Economic Contribution by British and Gulf academics, including Chris Rowley, Professor of Human Resource Management at Cass, found that in many GCC countries women university graduates outnumber men. In conservative Saudi Arabia, which has many social and legal restrictions on women such as banning them from driving, the female literacy rate and the percentage of women who hold university degrees are high. In the more liberal UAE and Qatar they are higher still. In fact, more women than men have degrees. And the weighting is likely to remain in their favour as women comprise 60% of university students across all GCC nations.
However, the success in bridging the gender gap in education is not reflected in the workforce. The study found that women comprise only 19.2% - fewer than one in five - of the workforce in the GCC economies. This means that the countries are underusing a significant resource that could otherwise contribute greatly to their ambitions. "The economic and social prosperity of the GCC depends on fully utilising the skills and contribution of all citizens, including women," says the study, which was commissioned by Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC).
Identity and culture
The GCC has within it some of the richest nations in the world. According to the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) league table of countries by gross domestic product (nominal) per capita, Qatar's GDP figure in 2010 was $74,901 per person, and the UAE's was $57,884, putting them in third and fifth places respectively. Only 20 countries had a higher GDP per capita than Kuwait (Britain was 22nd); and Saudi Arabia came in 39th. Using the IMF's list of countries assessed by purchasing power parity, Qatar was number one. The authors of the study believe GCC nations can further grow their economies by providing opportunities for educated women to work from home. This, they believe, would counter objections based on religious beliefs and tradition. "There is currently a [wide] availability of highly educated, skilled women across the GCC willing to enter the labour market, and large-scale home working initiatives could increase participation whilst maintaining national identity and culture," says the study. The authors believe that such arrangements could add two million qualified women to the workforce, increasing it by at least 12%. Women, they say, could contribute up to 30% to the combined GDP.
Ebtihaj M. Al-Tuwaijri, who advocates women's empowerment through the Women's Cultural and Social Society in Kuwait, says increasing opportunities for women to work from home would allow them to be more efficient. "This allows people to work on their own schedule and cater to family. In fact, this leaves them more time to produce quality work," she says. The study argues that the Gulf nations' modern infrastructure can accommodate many women working from home. It says: "[They] have achieved substantial advancements in communication technology, with the use of telephones and internet constantly increasing. This provides a fertile platform for home working initiatives to be a great success." The GCC is not a monolithic entity; a wide gap exists between the countries in their legal structures and social attitudes. Generally, the UAE and Bahrain are more open, Saudi Arabia and Oman more restricted. It is because of Saudi Arabia's constraints that some Saudis, especially women, relocate to other GCC jurisdictions. One of them is Badia Asaad. Ms Asaad moved first her publishing business and then her family's furniture manufacturing business to the UAE from Saudi Arabia because of bureaucratic, social and legal restrictions there.
She says: "In Saudi Arabia, if I have to go to a government office, I have to go to the women's section, and often, because the most essential work is done in the men's section, I have to go back with a man. "In my country women can't work [as easily]. What happens when I have to go back to the office to finish work? I need to have a driver. If one isn't there, I can't finish the work. So there are a lot of hassles for women." Moreover, she says, in the UAE women typically get preferential treatment, such as getting through bureaucratic processes more quickly, whereas in Saudi Arabia the reverse is often the case. "I always wear the traditional Gulf dress - the abaya. In UAE offices, because of it, I am respected and I go ahead of men. In Saudi Arabia, I have to cover my face, wait in a separate room and wait to be processed by a woman official." This attitude is reflected in the OSC survey. It found that about 20% of respondents across all GCC countries mentioned a husband's objections as a barrier to women seeking employment. However, in Saudi Arabia, more than half - 60% - said their husbands would object.
Children and family
But even in the UAE it is not unusual for a married woman to attend a job interview with her husband or ask her husband to speak to management if an issue arises. Abdulllah AlHarthi, an Emirati engineer from Al Ain, the second largest city in Abu Dhabi, about 120km (75 miles) south of Dubai, says that some men in remote parts of the UAE may object to their wives pursuing a career. "I am OK with my wife working but I know some men here in Al Ain who think it's shameful," Mr AlHarthi says. Nevertheless, the desire to care for children and family is given as the main reason why many women do not enter the GCC workforce. The authors of the study believe expanding opportunities to work from home would overcome this objection for many. They say that having staff working from home would be beneficial for employers: it could help to attract and retain talent, cut overheads and allow employees to enjoy a better work/life balance. A 2009 survey in the UK, for instance, found that workers collectively spend 4.6 million hours a day commuting. In the GCC area this problem is compounded because nationals often prefer to live outside city centres. While access to inexpensive labour allows many to hire drivers, the study found that distance from work presents a problem: in remote regions, many women would find it impossible to work. The report noted: "Many of the countries are trying to develop these regions to improve employment, but it is a slow process."
The study acknowledges that GCC initiatives have allowed many women to establish small businesses and prosper, mainly selling hand-crafted goods or in catering services. The authors, however, hope GCC states can now extend opportunities to the large pool of highly educated professional women. Helplines, human resources, IT support and market research are areas in which women could work from home. The study acknowledges that, at this stage, employers lack the infrastructure and management skills to implement home working. The authors propose that states establish an intermediary company that would hire and train women to provide services from home. They also suggest that employers need to recruit trainers who are experienced in managing remote workers. Ms Asaad says that changing attitudes is the most important element in bringing more women into the workforce, and that this is already happening in Saudi Arabia. "In the last 15 to 20 years women have become more active," she says. "About 20 years ago, banks didn't have women [staff] but today you see them in Saudi banks. So change is coming, but very gradually."
Professor Rowley says that if more professional women were in the workforce in the GCC area, it would change the cultural barriers that now exist but "only partly and long-term, as cultures, by their nature, are long held and slow moving." Expanding participation in the workforce would provide GCC nations with economic security and sustainability, the study says, because it would address the labour imbalance where expatriates make up 58% of the workforce, and as much as 87% in the UAE and Qatar. "These figures indicate that GCC economies are heavily reliant on expatriate labour and this is detrimental in the long term and cannot ensure sustainable economic development. GCC governments have the opportunity and the means to change this and reclaim control over their economies by establishing a new trend of home working which will bring qualified females into senior and professional roles."
Source: The Oxford Strategic Consulting report was compiled by Professor Chris Rowley, Director of the Centre for Research in Asian Management at Cass; and Professor William Scott-Jackson, Bashar Kariem, Andrew Porteous and Amira Harb of OSC.
Ryan Koorosh is a freelance writer.
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