Investing in women is key to equitable Covid-19 recovery, experts say

Investing in their retraining and upskilling is necessary for the country to build back better from the pandemic

A photo of smiling Emirati businesswoman with laptop. Middle Eastern professional in traditional arab attire of abaya and hijab. She is sitting at conference table. Office worker is looking away while working in brightly lit office.Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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Initiatives to equip women with new skills will help the UAE economy achieve an equitable and inclusive recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to officials, entrepreneurs and professionals.

Such initiatives are among the ways to further improve gender equality in the workplace, particularly during the pandemic, they said.

They include training programmes for women returning to the workforce after having children, easier access to capital for female entrepreneurs and a campaign to convince girls to take up science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

They also include programmes to equip women with the skills needed to join high-growth sectors.

“Workplaces should have specific tracks for women to progress into executive positions,” said Dr Hawaa Al Mansouri, deputy medical director, consultant endocrinologist and diabetologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre.

“Things are ripe here for females, in particular, to take leadership positions.”

The International Women’s Day on March 8 marks a year since the Covid-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns around the world to curb the spread of the virus.

Globally, women bore the economic and social brunt of the crisis, which threatens to erase gains made by them in improving economic opportunities and further widen gender gaps, according to the International Monetary Fund.

In the UAE, particularly in Abu Dhabi, the focus has been on attracting skilled talent and retraining other workers, said Tariq bin Hendi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office.

He said many women had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in countries that relied on blue-collar workers.

“This is a testament to what we are doing in Abu Dhabi in building industries that rely on intellect, on white-collar labour and all the programmes that come with that," he said.

"How do you upskill? How do you provide new opportunities for a woman in a blue-collar job to move into a white-collar employment? This goes back to our focus on high-skilled jobs [to] ensure that people who want to pursue them are upskilled in the right way and provided with the right education.”

This goes back to our focus on high-skilled jobs and make sure that people who want to pursue them are upskilled in the right way and provided with the right education attainment

According to a Deloitte survey released in December last year, about 82 per cent of women around the world said they were negatively affected by the pandemic, with their workloads having increased significantly.

Dr Narjess Boubakri, dean of the School of Business Administration at the American University of Sharjah, said more public and private spending is needed on services such as education, childcare and elderly support services.

This is expected to counter the effects of the pandemic and prevent women from leaving the job market permanently, she said.

Dr Al Mansouri, a mother of two, said her employer instructed her to work from home when the pandemic began, to minimise the risk to her newborn child.

The Emirati doctor, who was awarded the prestigious Presidential Scholarship to study in the US in 1999 and became the first non-American woman to graduate from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said she never felt more supported as a working mother amid the pandemic.

“For women who are professionals in health care, what Covid did is further underline that there is nothing negative being a female professional with kids. It is seen as ‘wow, this is something to be praised and supported’,” she said.

“The beauty of this culture is that we are very family-oriented – whether you are a resident or a foreigner, there is always that support to family and understanding that you have more responsibilities.”

For many women, the UAE capital is an attractive city to relocate for work due to its diversity and safety it affords them, said Dr Lina Yousef, an assistant professor of chemistry at Khalifa University, who has been working in the UAE for nine years.

The American-Palestinian chose to re-locate to Abu Dhabi for work after studying in the US, attracted by the opportunities at the sustainability-focused institute.

"Being around great minds was very attractive for me, tech and science were very new in the UAE, so there were tremendous opportunities for growth, especially for someone early in their career, and the compensation was great compared to other places," she said. "For me, it was a no brainer.

Dr Yousef, who works in the male-dominated field of science and technology, said while there are many opportunities available for women, some took longer to finish their degrees when they had children, she said.

Technology is evolving fast... If women aren't in these fields it's very scary to get into it or get left behind, we need to demystify getting into these fields

"There have to be programmes geared towards women that take that into account ... systems that support development of both professional and family life, without judgement," she said.

Meanwhile, Stem programmes need to be more accessible for women in order to foster girls' interest in sciences from an early age.

"It has to start from an early education system: toys geared towards kids are very gender biased," she said.

“Technology is evolving fast ... If women are not in these fields, it is very scary to get into it or get left behind, we need to demystify getting into these fields.”

The pandemic has hastened digitisation in fields such as sciences and arts and women have been called on to be a part of the digital future, helping to narrow the gender gap.

“The future of the workforce is through digitisation and technology savviness,” Dr Boubakri said.

“Many women may have to transition across occupations in the very near future. Digital inclusion is now a necessary condition to help close the gender and the skills gap.”