Nation 'losing women leaders' through lack of childcare

Dearth of childcare centres at government offices, despite a law passed four years ago, Dubai conference is told.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 12:  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Ruler of Dubai, in attendance on the first day of the Arab Women Leadership Forum held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Dubai on January 12, 2010. Also pictured is Mona Al Marri (centre left), Chief Executive Officer, Brand Dubai.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  For News story by Zoi Constantine
 *** Local Caption ***  RS007-011210-ARAB-WOMEN.jpg

DUBAI // The nation is "losing our women leaders" because of a dearth of childcare centres at government offices. That was the message from the first day of the Arab Women Leadership Forum, a two-day summit organised by the Dubai Women Establishment (DWE) focusing on maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Shamsa Saleh, the director of strategic planning and corporate development at the DWE, said a 2006 federal law mandating nurseries in government departments with more than 50 female employees had been slow to take off.

Some organisations also lack the appropriate space and know-how needed to establish a creche. However, Mrs Saleh said it was vital for organisations to act now. "We're losing our women leaders," she said. Dubai Customs has been the only government department in Dubai to open a creche based on guidelines developed by the DWE. According to the DWE, a government body headed by Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid, more than 20 per cent of women say that they will leave work when they have their first child.

"The aim is to keep our female leaders and employees in work and reduce turnover," she said, adding that there were about 15 government departments in Dubai where they had identified a need for an on-site creche. The Dubai Customs childcare centre was yesterday held up as an example for others to follow during the forum, which was opened by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Feryal Tawakul, the executive director of Dubai Customs' community affairs and government partnership division, said that not only did workplace creches help women remain in their jobs, but they also increased productivity. Since the Customs creche was opened in February, Mrs Tawakul said 95 per cent of the women have said they are satisfied with the service, for which they pay a nominal fee. The nursery, which is currently attended by 26 children, is now introducing English as a second language, and will soon allow the children of male employees aged two to six to enrol.

The creche is open to the children of both Emirati and expatriate employees. Mrs Tawakul said absenteeism within the organisation has dropped, while the productivity of working mothers has increased. "The impact has been very positive," she said. "I really encourage all organisations to take the lesson from this. At the end of the day, it is a priceless initiative. The bottom line is that our children are our future and they will grow in an environment that is close to our culture and is healthy and secure."

Other organisations are expected to open creches based on the DWE guidelines. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) is due to open one this month, while in Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs will have a facility for about 100 children within the next year, according to Mrs Saleh. During the forum's opening session, Najwa al Qasim, a news anchor with Al Arabiya television, posed questions to working mothers in the audience, who responded via electronic voting panels on each chair.

Of about 300 people who took part, 81 per cent said they agreed that organisations that start childcare centres would attract more female employees. Similarly, 75 per cent agreed that workplace childcare centres increase the productivity of working mothers. However, only 10 per cent agreed that effective policies exist in the Arab world to help women achieve a work-life balance. Mariam al Qubaisi, a forum participant from Abu Dhabi, said that 13 years ago when she had the first of her five children, she was only able to return to work because of help from her mother-in-law and a nanny.

Today, Mrs al Qubaisi is still pursuing her career as a psychologist working for the Zayed Higher Organisation. "It is very difficult if you don't have help," she said. "They must have more of these childcare centres, because many ladies want to work. Not just for the salary, but to see the world. We have ambitions too."