Clare Woodcraft is the CEO of Emirates Foundation, the national foundation of the UAE tasked with driving the nation’s vision of supporting youth development. Clare has more than 20 years of experience working in the field of sustainable development in the Middle East and Africa as a development practitioner, a journalist and a corporate executive specialising in sustainability, social investment and reputation management.
It is shocking that in the 21st century we still need to justify why women should be given equal opportunities in the workforce and public sphere, given they comprise 50 per cent of the world’s population. While we see progress around women in senior governance and decision-making roles through, for example, legislation in the UAE and quotas in countries such as Norway, the targets are still modest. A campaign in the UK to get women on FTSE boards targets just 33 per cent rather than 50 per cent. Meanwhile, feminism has gone out of fashion even though it just means equal rights for men and women.
Women in MENA, however, are leading the charge and becoming as vocal and active as their international counterparts in calling for more empowerment, equal opportunities, pay and voice. They are also increasingly taking up senior leadership roles and providing the much needed role models that can be game changing for young women across the Arab world.
Already we see prominent Arab women in senior government roles. From Sheikha Lubna bin Khalid Al Qasimi, the UAE Minister of Tolerance, to Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs, and the 22-year old Minister of State for Youth Affairs, Shamma Suhail Al Mazrui, the UAE leads in bringing women into public policy realms.
The philanthropic sector has also seen the rise of professional women making an impact. Maytha Al Habsi, Deputy CEO of Emirates Foundation, is a leader in social investment creating and scaling two of our most successful initiatives, Sanid and Takatof. Sheikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan is championing financial literacy and also actively calling for more women on boards.
In the broader region, Princess Banderi Bint Abdulrahman Al Faisal leads the Saudi King Khalid Foundation’s excellent work on human capital. Women run two of Egypt’s leading foundations: Nora Selim, the Executive Director of Sawiris Foundation, and Rania Hammad, the Managing Director of Mansour Foundation.
The private sector has equally powerful role models. Muna Easa Al Gurg, the Director of Retail for the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, is a prominent voice advocating for more women in business and is successful in her own right in maximising the commercial success of a family firm.
We know from research that what young Arab women want are role models. The work of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey shows that youth – male and female – support the empowerment and enfranchisement of women. The MENA region still has the lowest level of female labour force participation in the world but there is hope. Research shows that young Arab women can be inspired by just one person – one person who is able to demonstrate that women can break down barriers and taboos. With more effort around mentoring and access to opportunities in the private sector where their talent is nurtured, it is entirely possible that there will come a tipping point in coming years for Arab women accessing the public sphere.
Across the region, women are using enterprise as a force for economic prosperity, empowerment and access. Glowork, a Saudi-based social enterprise, has seen the placement of 27,000 women in jobs in the private sector in Saudi Arabia since its establishment just five years ago.
Women are increasingly interested in technical or STEM roles, the area where future opportunities are likely to flourish.
Women in MENA are consistently defying the stereotypes, proving their worth in the male dominated aspects of the labour force and becoming a force to be reckoned with in terms of leadership. The UAE’s leadership is aware of this: At the 2013 UAE Government Summit Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, emphasised: “In the UAE, 70 per cent of graduates are women, 65 per cent of government employees are women, and 30 per cent are leaders already. Women work hard and achieve more, they have a brighter future. We have plans for women, and the men should watch out, for the women will take their positions.”
Youth intrinsically understand this and simply don’t accept that women should be excluded. Youth are the solution to many aspects of sustainability and particularly gender equality. Given the region’s demographics, herein lies a potentially powerful dividend. The tide is turning. The voice of youth can accelerate change and allow the Arab world to take its rightful place on the world stage as a rich, diverse, innovative and inspiring community. Riding on the back of the digital revolution and their intrinsic sense of social purpose, equity and sustainability, progressive, open-minded and vocal youth are surely the best way to ensure that female talent in the Arab world is nurtured and that social and economic policies leverage this enormous potential.