Matching educational programmes to the realities and demands of the jobs market is crucial to boosting employment among Arab women, according to Sheikha Lubna bint Al Qasimi, one of the UAE’s most prominent politicians and president of Zayed University.
Speaking to The National to mark International Women's Day on Thursday, Sheikha Lubna said ensuring school and university curricula equip female graduates with job-relevant skills is the most important way of boosting their participation in the workforce.
“What you don’t want is to move forward and find there are several majors at universities and schools that are not fulfilling a role of future employment,” Sheikha Lubna said.
“So this is one way of closing the gap [between men and women in the workforce], by looking at university courses and products not in terms of outcome, but also in terms of how we evaluate the job market and its needs.”
Despite impressive higher education rates among women, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has lower rates of female labour force participation than the rest of the world.
Women make up 49 per cent of the Mena population and, in some countries, up to 63 per cent of university students. Yet they represent 28 per cent of the labour force compared to over 50 per cent in the US, according to the World Bank.
A 2017 study by UN Women and Promundo, a Brazilian lobby group to promote gender equality among boys, claimed more than two thirds of Mena men support the notion that a woman’s most important role is to take care of the household, highlighting significant cultural barriers to gender equality.
Sheikha Lubna, former Minister of Tolerance and a former Minister of International Cooperation and Development, said the UAE was above many other Mena countries in terms of female employment rates.
The percentage of women in the workforce grew to 46 per cent from 34 per cent between 2000 and 2014, according to a report last year by Boston Consulting Group.
Zayed University advises a government council responsible for advocating employability of students, she said. “We are asking, what are the jobs of the future? How can I build a curriculum and relevant specialisation into degrees? I need to understand the jobs market.”
Industries that present a particular opportunity for female graduates include “anything to do with STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]”.
Sheikha Lubna cited companies such as Strata, the manufacturing business of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Mubadala Aerospace, where she said about 70 per cent of engineers are women; Masdar Institute, where a sizeable proportion of science graduates are female; Enec (Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation), and technology companies such as Cisco, as examples of firms with proactive hiring of women.
She said the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the emergence of artificial intelligence would necessitate a shrewd analysis of future employment prospects in the job market. “There will be jobs, but where will you fit?” she said. “You need to look at the profiling of these things that are coming in the future and see how can you prepare your education system for these niche markets.”
Sheikha Lubna said that in the public sector, women accounted for nine out of 32 cabinet ministers – a higher proportion than in many other countries, including the United States.
“The most critical path today is tapping into the private sector. There is not enough employment of nationals in the private sector,” she said.
"On this year's Women's Day I want to send a congratulatory message to all the women in the UAE – not just the leaders but all the women – and say, well done. I also send gratitude to the leaders of the country for supporting them and all the chief executives who have pushed the envelope for women," she told The National after her keynote speech at Cisco's sixth annual Women of Impact event in Dubai yesterday.