Jobs lure women abroad

The UAE's employment gender gap expands as more Emirati women seek opportunities abroad.

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An increasing number of educated Emirati women are taking jobs abroad, further expanding the UAE's employment gender gap, a government labour official said. According to figures from the Ministry of Economy, women in the UAE lag far behind men in terms of economic opportunity and integration into the workforce. One reason is said to be that women seek careers abroad rather than taking jobs at home. The Government could not cite specific numbers of Emirati women working abroad, but Feddah Lootah, general manager of Tanmia, the National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority, said: "We are seeing a larger number of women staying abroad and taking up jobs there once they complete their education but that only serves to further highlight what Emirati women can achieve. "It means that they have reached a level of excellence, but it leaves the market unbalanced." Although Emirati women tend to be better educated than their male counterparts, job opportunities at home are scarce, Ms Lootah said. "Women tend to study more and attend courses abroad, so staying there they feel it might benefit their careers. Also, we have had a flurry of hiring women for the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to take overseas assignments, some high-profile." There are about 17,000 unemployed Emiratis, according to Tanmia, despite the availability of nearly 1,600 jobs specifically for Emiratis, up 350 from July. The overwhelming majority of the unemployed are women.

In its 2007 Social and Economic Report, published last week, the Government said the UAE population reached 4.49 million in 2007, up 260,000 from the previous year. The Emirati population is about 900,000. Of the additional population, 68.7 per cent were men. The number of workers reached 3.1 million in 2007, compared with 2.87 million in 2006. Unappealing working hours and a lack of internships, career counselling, government-subsidised child care and benefits are cited as reasons for the UAE's low ranking for gender equality from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Despite having a highly competitive economy, the UAE ranks 105th out of 128 countries in the forum's 2007 Global Gender Gap Index. However, according to the WEF, the UAE performs relatively well in terms of equal access to health and education resources, and in political participation. "Government-funded child care and longer maternity leave would decrease the time costs for women associated with joining the labour force," said Christine Assaad, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government.

Her report, entitled Gender Equality in the United Arab Emirates: A Driver for Increased Competitiveness?, suggests employment should be made more attractive to women through more accommodating work arrangements. Ms Assaad said incentives would lessen gender bias. "Harmonising these benefits across all sectors would ensure women's entry and retention in the workforce... while making hiring women more attractive to employers."

According to Ms Assaad's report, 39 per cent of women in the UAE are employed, compared with 92 per cent of men. Most of the women are in administrative jobs. Only 25 per cent are in jobs considered professional or technical, and only eight per cent of top managers are women. "Perhaps most strikingly of all, the average woman earns less than a quarter of the average man: US$32,000 (Dh117,000) a year for men, but only $7,600 for women," Ms Assaad said.

The report says unless there are changes in labour policies to stimulate the economic inclusion of women, the gender gap will grow. It specifically calls for more accurate and timely information from government agencies. "A truer picture of gender equality in the UAE will emerge and policy solutions can be more effectively formulated," Ms Assaad said. Dr May al Dabbagh, a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government and the Dubai Initiative, added, "This is not a problem for the UAE only."

Most Middle Eastern countries have "a high gender bias that has severe effect on society", Dr Dabbagh said. Mariam Saleh, an Emirati who works in London as a customer-care executive at a Soho-based entertainment company, believes she has a better career in Britain. "There are many Emirati girls who, after they graduated, decided to remain in the UK, as we saw more potential for careers and personal development compared to what is available back home," said Ms Saleh.

She sees the UAE's workforce as male-dominated. "The idea of working in a male-only environment is off-putting here. I work with women and interact with people from all backgrounds."