Stereotypes can stymie the UAE's development

The affirmation of negative stereotypes in educational and work environments fosters low expectations and can lead to poor motivation and achievement levels among Emiratis.

The link between the employment of higher education graduates and national development has been proven by economists and researchers studying diverse populations. Understanding this link is vital since the employment market drives social and economic development and also because it enables citizens to play a role as productive members of society. With more students graduating from high school every year for the next decade and the majority interested in pursuing higher education, the UAE is working diligently towards securing meaningful employment opportunities for its citizens. In this spirit, numerous national development programmes have been created at both federal and emirate levels. These entities serve as the link between public and private sector employers and Emirati job seekers with varying levels of education. They also run programmes aimed at increasing the marketability of young Emiratis through helping them become more familiar with the technologies and soft skills they will need to find success in the workplace. However, national development programmes do not address the more inconspicuous challenges related to securing employment: negative stereotyping.

Stereotyping is the process of first categorising people into groups based on attributes such as race or gender and then developing beliefs about the characteristics and behaviours of group members. Humans have a tendency to develop both negative and positive stereotypes which result in corresponding outcomes. Gender stereotyping is probably the most universal form because gender differences are the most visually recognisable. These stereotypes portray women as kind, timid and supportive, while men are viewed as autonomous, courageous and achievement orientated. Gender stereotyping is often cited as the primary force behind the gender typing of jobs as masculine and feminine, which often results in lower earnings for women and the dearth of women in positions of power. These stereotypes can also limit a woman's career choices and opportunities.

Researchers have argued that stereotypes impact individuals throughout their lifetime and can have a profound influence on individual and group achievement. These profound impacts were documented by researchers at Stanford University, who coined the term "stereotype threat" to illustrate how stereotypes influenced student achievement across gender and ethnicity. Their research showed that when students are exposed to a negative stereotype about the group or groups they belong to, they live up to it. For example, European American and African American students of similar abilities were given a college level maths test. African American students that were shown positive portrayals of the group performed better than their European American counterparts. Those that were shown or given negative portrayals of the group performed significantly worse. The theory was subsequently tested hundreds of times in different situations, which largely supported the research performed at Stanford.

So, what's the link between stereotypes and Emiratisation? The presence of negative stereotypes can adversely impact the career choices and employment opportunities for Emirati youth. Stereotypes of Emiratis include that they have no need for meaningful employment, a poor work ethic, and poor educational achievement. The affirmation of these negative stereotypes in educational and work environments fosters low expectations and can lead to poor motivation and achievement levels among Emiratis. These stereotypes work insidiously to dim the minds and expectations of Emirati youth, hindering national development.

Can stereotypes be changed and their impact minimised? Identifying both positive and negative stereotypes related to the Emirati population is an important first step. Once these stereotypes are known, it is the responsibility of schools and other institutions that drive national development efforts to produce information that negates their influence. The primary aim of these campaigns, targeted at students, teachers, employers and the general public, must not be to eliminate stereotyping - which is impossible - but to create new positive stereotypes. It is also critical that national development programmes enable young job seekers to recognise both negative and positive stereotypes so that they can reinforce the positive and mitigate their response to the negative.

Dr Fatma Abdulla is a non-resident research fellow at the Dubai School of Government and managing director of Global Consulting Associates, a strategic advisory firm focused on health care and higher education.