'Big gaps' must be addressed to reach gender equality in Middle East

Gender balance forum at World Government Summit hears not enough is being done to to get more women in the boardroom

Dubai, U.A.E., February 11, 2019. World Government Summit day 2-DXB.-- Achieving Gender Balance:  From Policies to Impact.  H.E. Jose Angel Gurria, Secretary General, OECD and Mona Al Marri, Vice President of UAE Gender Balance Council.
Victor Besa/The National
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Reporter:  Nick Webster
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The Middle East and the UAE still have some way to go to achieve gender equality, the head of the OECD group of nations said.

Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai on Monday, Jose Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said that the right environment has to be fostered for women to choose to go to university and pursue a career.

“Unfortunately, gender balance does not happen naturally," he said.

“In this region, there are still big gaps [in the number of women sat on company boards], including the UAE, but more women are attending university.

“It is about how to create an environment to encourage women to go to university, but also what career path to choose.”

Gender equality is one of the 17 sustainable development goals the United Nations has asked countries to achieve by 2030.

Despite progress in the UAE, the recent Gender Balance Index awards for government diversity were criticised internationally for being awarded only to men.

Mona Al Marri, vice president of the UAE Gender Balance Council, said change is beginning to be felt across society.

“Today, women have more opportunities across society, in politics and the economy, as well as the military and police,” she said.

“Women are now present in all fields and have proved themselves to be successful.

“There is proof this is changing, and is boosting the economy.”

In the UAE, a royal directive released in October said that female representation in the Federal National Council must be brought up to 50 per cent, which, when enacted, will mean the country will be in the top five nations for female political representation.

“Women are inspiring other young women to get involved in running businesses.

“Women need to understand that fundamental changes are possible and new opportunities are on the horizon.

“Gender balance and women’s empowerment will only happen with support from the government and strong leadership.

Getting more women into the boardroom remains a persistent challenge for many international businesses, with some nations making headway through legislation.

Norway implemented a mandate for women to hold 40 per cent of company director seats more than 10 years ago, with those who failed to comply suffering a financial penalty. Since 2013, more than a dozen nations have set similar quotas, including Belgium, France and Italy.

Other nations have ‘soft-law’ quotas or government guidelines without penalty.