Bridging the gender gap

The Life: Women account for around half the population of GCC countries, but less than a fifth of the workforce. Getting more women into work could boost productivity and increase nationalisation rates. But how can it be done?

Flexi-work or part-time work is practically non-existent in the UAE, says Lucy Chow of 85 Broads, a global women's network. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Women account for about half the population of GCC countries, but less than a fifth of the workforce.

So getting more women into the workplace could boost productivity and increase the percentage of nationals employed. But how can it be done?

One answer: more home work.

That was the suggestion proposed in a report by Cass Business School, a Loncon college that has a branch in Dubai.

The study, which focuses on Abu Dhabi and Dubai, praises initiatives such as the Dubai Women's Establishment five-year plan and the Government's Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 report, which aims to maximise the participation of women.

"Such initiatives show that at both a ministerial and social level, there is progressive thought with regards to improving rates of female economic participation in the UAE," says Professor Chris Rowley, the director of the Centre for Research on Asian Management, Cass Business School, London.

According to Booz and Company, the UAE scores highest in the GCC, with 59 per cent of Emirati women in work.

The Emirates may be better than elsewhere in the region, but it is still not comparable to the UK and other European countries.

Why not?

"Surveys have shown that some of the biggest barriers to Emirati women joining the workplace, especially the private sector, is the inability to pursue a career due to a lack of opportunities close to their place of residence, lack of appropriate child-care arrangements and perceived job insecurity," says Raja Al Gurg, the president of Dubai Business Women Council, and a successful businesswoman.

Significant numbers of women work in the government sector but the figures need to be enhanced in the private sector, she says.

Some women want only a part-time position or one that can offer them flexibility to manage their family commitments.

"However, flexi-work or part-time work is practically non-existent in the UAE," says Lucy Chow, the co-chairwoman of the Dubai chapter of 85 Broads, a global women's network.

Home working schemes would benefit these types of women, says Prof Rowley.

And if implemented properly, the approach could add more than 2 million additional highly qualified women to the GCC workforce and potentially contribute up to 30 per cent to the region's GDP, according to the report.

More women in work would also add to the overall skills base and benefit individual organisations.

"All research shows that diverse teams tend to achieve better results due to a wider set of ideas on which the team can base its decisions," says Stephan Schubert, an affiliate professor of entrepreneurship for Insead business school in Abu Dhabi.

Working from home would undoubtedly increase the number of women employed, says Mrs Chow, who founded her own company in the UAE, The Elements Group.

"It could mean becoming an entrepreneur. Or it could mean employers being flexible and 'allowing' members of their workforce to have a home office," she says.

But not all jobs can be done from home, so it can form only part of the solution.

"Other levers need to be pulled too if the participation of women in the GCC workforce is to be increased," says Mr Schubert.

"Government can also help by encouraging the private sector to offer more flexible work conditions for women."

Companies that want to attract more women will also have to reorganise their operations to allow them to balance their career and family.

"We need to address these issues through dialogue with private sector employers for greater flexibility," says Mrs Al Gurg.

"Also, they need to work on initiatives to attract and retain UAE national talent."