A short-term role for gender quotas

Positive discrimination in favour of women in the workforce may be necessary, at least until society gets used to the idea that women are just as capable as men.

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What is the best way to empower professional women? The question is pertinent across the Middle East, where the rates of women participating in the labour market are fairly low. By World Bank statistics from 2010, women made up only 26 per cent of the Middle East's workforce.

In the UAE, where Emiratisation goals require a stronger citizen role, the empowerment of women is an urgent priority. Speakers at the Arab Women Leadership Forum in Dubai last week said that government quotas were not always the best way forward, and favoured more training, networking and personal ambition as the solutions. But in many Middle Eastern countries, women make up the majority of university students - they have already shown their capabilities when they have the opportunity and support.

In the UAE, for example, more women are participating in the workforce and reaching leadership positions - Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of Trade, is an obvious example. The success of Sheikha Lubna and others has happened because of their own will and determination, but with the support of government, which provides educational opportunities for women and, in recent years, given them priority when hiring for some jobs. Many women have broken cultural barriers and become role models for others.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, in countries such as Saudi Arabia, women still face many obstacles. For example, Saudi women are not allowed to work without their guardian's permission, and they are prevented from working in certain sectors that are not considered as suitable for them. These obstacles, in addition to cultural barriers, impose serious challenges for them and limit their career choices. Women make up only 14.4 per cent of the Saudi labour market, according to a study by the consultancy firm Booz & Company in 2010, even though the majority of university students in the country are women.

The Arab world can learn from the UAE, although there are still cultural barriers to women's entry into the workforce in some quarters. There is no question that women can contribute at the highest levels of business and society - once they have access to those offices. In the meantime, positive discrimination in favour of women may be necessary, at least until society gets used to the idea that women are just as capable as men.