4 Innovations Transforming Lives for Emirati Women
By Naveen Shakir, Ashoka Changemakers, @Naveen0813
Women in the United Arab Emirates hold just five percent of the private-sector jobs, a remarkable fact given that a growing number of Emirati women are moving into traditionally male-dominated fields such as engineering, technology, law, and business. Emirati women hold 66 percent of the country’s public sector jobs, including 60 percent of the jobs in medicine, teaching, pharmacy, and nursing.
But generally, throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, women face barriers to the workplace, especially in the private sector, as a result of social norms, inadequate access to quality jobs, a lack of skills training and capital, limitations on mobility, and discrimination in the workplace. The number of women entrepreneurs remains low, compared to other regions, according to the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys. They found that “while there are no significant differences in the types of firms owned by women and men, women face a more hostile business environment.”
The UAE has stood out as a leader among MENA countries since the late 1980s for helping women overcome high barriers to employment. Seventy percent of Emirati university graduates are women, and the female literacy rate is 91 percent.
Women benefit from their ability to find working in the Emirati public sector work, because these jobs provide relevant professional skills and flexible work schedules for women who need to maintain a home life. Some women decide to pursue work in the public sector, even before they enter a university, because the government provides good wages and benefits.
But some argue that this still limits women’s career choices. Public sector employment is not an effective way for women to develop the skills, especially entrepreneurial skills, and they need to move into a more competitive private sector job, according to research conducted by Dr. Nasser Saidi, former chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Centre.
The Gulf region still “encourages the kind of education [that leads to becoming a] fairly unskilled clerk or normal employee in the public sector,” said Alia Moubayed, director and senior MENA economist at Barclays Capital.
Training Young Entrepreneurs
Some innovative UAE organizations are tackling the challenge of how to help Emirati women expand their career choices, while making the private sector a more hospitable place. For example, The Platform Consultancy, a Dubai-based firm founded in 2013, has recently started a high school student program that gives young women the skills and knowledge they need to implement their own ideas and become entrepreneurs.
While most young Emirati women in the region are strong academically, knowledge about how to launch a business is often scarce. The Platform’s Youth Initiative (YI) engages students in a series of talks and workshops that develop their entrepreneurial skills, and their ability to create business models and build partnerships.
YI plans to develop local partnerships that help both young Emirati and expatriate women deal with cultural obstacles they may face when entering the workforce, including lack of family support and work/life balance issues. YI hopes to establish a base with UAE schools in the next few years, and its potential impact could extend beyond the UAE region because some of the expatriate women will return to their native countries to develop their own ideas and promote entrepreneurship.
Introducing Role Models & Support Systems
The LINK has just launched to offer women, who have graduated from university and are entering the workforce, a free one-on-one mentoring program to help them advance professionally, while introducing them to mentors/female role models and leaders in the workplace. There are other organizations in the UAE that provide in-house corporate mentorship programs, but this initiative’s focus on all industries allows women to reflect on workplace challenges without fear of repercussions.
This program is especially important for women who lack the confidence to discuss workplace issues and may be ill-equipped to push their careers forward. The LINK plans to develop strategic partnerships with corporations, universities, and the Dubai Business Women’s Council, the official representative for all professional women in Dubai.
Corporate partners will benefit by promoting their own women leaders, and helping to nurture a female talent pool. University partners will provide mentees and support research related to female advancement in the workplace. The Dubai Business Women’s Council will contribute resources and continue to build its own network, while providing opportunities for growth to all involved.
The LINK’s founders also plan to create branches that act as training organizations, setting up and delivering the mentorship program and associated skills training, and connecting women across all regions.
Connecting Skills while Offering Flexibility
Nabbesh, a MENA-based online skill-set marketplace, is designed to help men and women post and find project-based work opportunities with flexible work hours. With corporate partners and business leaders on board, the founders will launch the “www Initiative” in 2014, utilizing Nabbesh’s online platform to employ Emirati women in the private sector.
This initiative offers the flexibility that women need to work around family and/or social limitations. The organization’s founders suggest that this flexibility in the private sector will allow Emirati women to “contribute more to the UAE’s growing economy in a way that is consistent with the UAE’s culture and family values.”
They also believe that “if this concept can work in the UAE, the UAE can help bring this model of flexible work for women to the greater MENA region, which has the potential to empower women both economically and socially.”
Funding for Women, by Women
The Women’s Angel Investment Network (WAIN) was founded in May 2013 to provide financial tools to women with capital to invest in women-led companies, and to connect them with women entrepreneurs. “There are a rising number of women entrepreneurs in the Middle East (estimated to be 30 to 40 percent of all start-ups) that are not receiving support in terms of mentoring and capital needed to be successful,” according to the founder.
While some women have enough funds to invest in start-ups, they seem to lack the financial literacy or tools to provide the “smart” capital needed by female entrepreneurs. WAIN provides this financial training (valuation, due diligence, deal flow, etc.) to a group of 10 women angel investors. Following an application process for women entrepreneurs, it connects them to the short-listed companies that need support.
After six months of working with an entrepreneur, the angel investor group collectively provides an equity investment and nominates one woman to represent them on its board. Since most angel investors or accelerators in the region are tech-focused, WAIN is important because it support both ends of the spectrum – women investors, and women entrepreneurs.
The UAE is taking steps to integrate Emirati women into the private sector, and the organizations highlighted here are working to identify and remove barriers to women’s employment, while increasing their skill sets. Countries that invest in women’s skills and talents diversify their economic activities, while helping contribute to overall growth and productivity.
The UAE can continue to make progress in the following areas:
Improve Access to Financing: This is a major issue for both men and women in the region. Accordig to a recent Booz & Co. study, “All in all, these women are also facing challenges faced by male entrepreneurs in the region, primarily the difficulty of access to early-stage and follow-on capital.” With entrepreneurship on the rise in the UAE, improving financial literacy for women and making it easier for everyone to access financing will help support and nurture this growing population, and will open up funding to organizations other than the usual tech start-ups.
Encourage Private-Academic Partnerships: Partnerships between universities and the private sector can help women receive training in the work force when education is lacking. Similar to the partnerships mentioned above, training, mentoring, and guiding women through the challenges of the private sector can help elevate their status, bolster their confidence, and nurture their employability. These relationships can also help tackle cultural and social norms by standardizing a system that encourages highly educated women to enter the private sector beginning at a young age.
Promote Gender Diversity in the Workplace: Perception matters. Promoting the mere presence of women in the corporate workplace is a huge step forward. Cultural and social norms will continue to discourage women from participating if women are not seen in the private sector and the practice is not normalized.
If you like these innovations, you can get a more in-depth perspective about them and other social innovations that turn challenges into opportunities, sparking hope for a better future, by visiting the Women Powering Work competition page, and by checking out discovery framework and changemaking toolkit
Follow the #womenWork hashtag on Twitter to get the latest trends about women’s economic equality in MENA!