Gender balance in ICT workforce will take the UAE forward

Empowering women in ICT can close the sector's gender gap and change the landscape of the UAE economy, says Hala Badri from du.

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The UAE government has undertaken a number of initiatives to narrow the gender gap in the country’s workforce. And to a large extent, the results are showing.

Earlier this year, the UAE leadership formed the Gender Balance Council, which aims to boost the country’s efforts to evolve and enhance women’s role as key partners in building the future of the nation. Pioneering females – Mariam Al Safar, the first woman to operate the Dubai Tram; Mariam Al Mansouri, the UAE’s first fighter pilot; and Ayesha Hassan AbdulRahman Al Marzooqi, the country’s first female crane operator – all have one thing in common: they are inspirational mentors who hold positions in traditionally male-dominated industries.

The gender disparity has narrowed considerably at the UAE’s ICT education level. The Economist Survey: Women in Science, Technology and Engineering, reveals that more women are currently studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) at UAE government universities than men. Furthermore, in Stem-related courses, the number of female graduates has reached 56.8 per cent at government universities.

While these statistics are very positive, there is an alarming undertone. If all these women have graduated from difficult Stem-related courses, why are the numbers not reflected in the industry?

More women needed in the ICT sector

According to Intel (2013), bringing 600 million additional women to the ICT sector can boost the GDP of developing countries by an estimated US$13 billion to $18bn. Furthermore, the World Bank (2012) found that the underrepresentation of women dampens productivity and ICT innovation – and eliminating discrimination in the workplace could almost double overall productivity.

While this remains a global issue, in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) a large proportion of females are underrepresented in the ICT sector. According to the World Bank, only 4.1 per cent of firms in Mena have a female top manager, which is an improvement on a few years ago, when there was no female representation at all. There are at least four women influencing ICT in their countries and sitting at the helm of some of the region’s fastest-growing operators. Majd Shweikeh, minister of information and communications technology, Jordan; Rafiah Ibrahim, president, Ericsson, Middle East & East Africa; Ghada Gebara, chief executive, Korek Telecom; and Elisabeth Medou, managing director of Orange Cameroon, are championing the way forward for women in ICT. But in such a large region, the numbers are few and far between.

Although working women contribute about $3.4bn to the UAE’s economy, their average number is nonetheless small, compared to the overall labour force. If women are aggregators of a significant rise in GDP, what is deterring them from working in ICT?

What discourages women from joining the ICT sector

A number of Middle East studies have found that women have difficulty realising a work-life balance can be achieved, which prevents them from entering the workplace. A 2012 poll by the Dubai Women Establishment discovered that 62 per cent of poll respondents were reluctant to join the UAE workforce despite many organisations implementing childcare facilities, flexible work schedules and longer maternity leave to address these issues. The work-life balance challenge is not unique to the UAE and the study, Jordanian Women in the ICT Space, recorded similar factors keeping women away from the sector. The same study says these challenges can be overcome when women gain confidence, knowledge and financial support.

Creating positive narratives

We have to start challenging the existing stereotypes and attitudes that exist within the sector. Firstly, we must champion the achievements of successful women in ICT, to encourage young girls to look up to them as role models. More importantly, we have to ensure easier access to mentors in the sector for aspirants. Having positive role models will further entice young girls studying Stem-related courses to turn their degrees into viable and successful careers within the ICT industry.

Things are slowly changing; du’s Fujairah call centre is run by a 94.4 per cent Emirati female workforce; and companies such as and Mother, Baby and Child are owned and managed by female entrepreneurs. According to the Ministry of Economy, about half of the small-to-medium enterprise sector in the UAE is handled by women. Furthermore, 48 per cent of women business owners are also the sole owners of their firms. In the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, 43 per cent of the investors are women, reflecting their ambition to be part of the UAE’s vibrant economic activity.

The transformative thinking that channelled our growth from a desert mass into one of the world’s most sought-after destinations is being called into play to change mindsets. The infrastructure and opportunities have been set up and the Gender Balance Council has been established. There are no quick fixes, but there are definitely actions that can be taken today to influence a more balanced ICT tomorrow. Are you ready to be a part of this transformation?

Hala Badri is the executive vice president, brand and communications for du.

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