Mena 'needs more female leaders to close 115-year gender gap'

Covid-19 pandemic set gender parity back a generation and cost-of-living crisis likely to impede progress further, global report finds

The Middle East has a long way to go to fill the gender gap in management, the boardroom and when it comes to pay. Photo: Alamy
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Women must be given more leadership roles and a greater say in political decision-making to help the Middle East and North Africa close the second-widest gender gap in the world, a report has suggested.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 — released by the World Economic Forum on Wednesday — ranked the Mena region below only South-east Asia in its latest league table.

The annual report measures efforts to achieve gender equality across economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

The 2021 report found work to achieve equality had been set back by a generation by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the new study revealing only one in five of the 146 economies surveyed had been able to close the gender gap by at least 1 per cent in the past year.

Globally, countries will take another 132 years, compared to 136 in 2021, to close the gender gap.

In Mena, this figure stands at 115 years.

No country in the world has achieved full gender parity, but the top 10 economies ranked on the list have closed at least 80 per cent of the gap.

Iceland remained the world’s most gender-equal country for the 13th year in a row, followed by Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Sweden. Afghanistan ranked last worldwide for gender parity.

This year marked the first time since 2016 that the Mena region had improved its ranking, having previously been bottom of the regional index.

Academic progress must be reflected in workplace

Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum, said the region had witnessed vast investment in women's education in the past three decades but said much work was still to be done.

"More women are coming out of university education than men in most of the Gulf countries," she said. "That investment getting converted into workforce gains is where the focus needs to be.

"There has been a lot of progress. For example in the UAE and in Saudi Arabia, they are doing fairly well in terms of closing the gender gap relative to their starting points.

"But, many more women need to go into leadership positions and more political decision-making structures.

"Those are the two things that I think would have the biggest impact in terms of closing the gender gap in the region."

In Mena, some progress was made in closing the economic gender gap by 2 per cent, with a number of countries improving women’s workforce participation and the employing more females in technical roles.

The UAE strengthened its position as it ranked 68 out of 146 countries in the report, up from 72 in 2021 and 120 in 2020.

How did countries in Mena perform?

The region had an average score of 63.4 per cent, while South Asia, which ranked the lowest, had 62.3 per cent of the gender gap closed.

Middle East and North Africa has closed 96.4 per cent of its gender gap for health and survival.

Also, there was improvement on the economic participation and opportunity subindex, which raised the level of progress in closing the gender gap from 44 per cent to 46 per cent in 2022.

In educational attainment, the region achieved 96.2 per cent of gender parity. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar have closed their gender gaps in primary education.

The 2021 report found that Mena had a score of 60.9 per cent with about 40 per cent yet to be closed. At the time, the report said it would take 142.4 years to close the gender gap in primary education in the region.

UAE, Lebanon and Israel were the best-performing countries in 2022, while Qatar, Oman and Algeria were the worst. This year’s most-improved countries in the region, compared to 2021, were Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Kuwait.

Six countries, led by Kuwait, Oman and UAE, increased their share of women in technical roles.

Women set to be hit worst by cost-of-living crisis

The report found that a widening gender gap in the labour force meant the cost-of-living crisis was expected to hit women hardest.

“In 2022, amid multi-layered and compounding crises including the rising cost of living, the ongoing pandemic, the climate emergency and large-scale conflict and displacement, the progress towards gender parity is stalling," said Ms Zahidi.

“Not only are millions of women and girls losing out on access and opportunity at present, this halt in progress towards parity is a catastrophe for the future.

“The cost-of-living crisis is impacting women disproportionately after the shock of labour market losses during the pandemic and the continued inadequacy of care infrastructure.”

She said that, in the face of a weak recovery, government and businesses needed to have targeted policies to support women’s return to the workforce and harness women’s talent development in industries of the future.

Gender gaps in care work

The majority of care work falls on women's shoulders, with women pulling double shifts balancing domestic chores with busy professional lives.

According to the International Labour Organisation, more than 2 million mothers globally left the labour force in 2020.

"Based on an analysis of 33 countries representing 54 per cent of the global working-age population, we find that men’s share of time spent in unpaid work as a proportion of time spent in total work is 19 per cent. This is one third of the share of time women spent in unpaid work (as a proportion of total work), which is 55 per cent," found the Global Gender Gap Report 2022.

Suzanne Duke, head of the global public policy and economic graph team at LinkedIn, believes that flexibility would be a game-changer.

"We need flexible working options for men and women," she said.

"Flexible working needs to be normalised for men and women if we are going to attract a diverse pool of talent and break this double shift that we have seen women assume juggling professional and care responsibilities.

"Women are 24 per cent more likely than men to apply for remote roles which shows just how crucial flexibility is for women."

How did the rest of the world perform?

North America performed best with 76.9 per cent of its gender gap closed while Europe came second with 76.6 per cent.

Latin America and the Caribbean (72.6 per cent) ranked third regionally. South Asia (62.3 per cent) had the largest gender gap of all regions, with low scores across all measured gender gaps and little progress made in most countries since 2021.

The report found that global gender parity for workforce participation had been declining since 2009 and the trend was exacerbated in 2020, when gender parity scores decreased over two consecutive reports.

As a result, in 2022, gender parity in the workforce was at 62.9 per cent, the lowest level registered since the index was first compiled.

Updated: July 13, 2022, 4:25 PM