A group mostly made up of female leaders pleaded for a mix of government measures, a cultural shift, and more widely held meritocratic standards to unlock the full potential of Arab women in the workforce. In a session at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, senior executives and policy-makers on the panel put the onus on individual persistence and meritocracy, while a new generation underlined that equality is – first and foremost – a matter of morality.
The market power of women’s increased participation in the workforce could add an estimated $2.7 trillion to the economy on the Middle East and North Africa by 2025, the panel said. This potential is made possible by the increased number of women being educated and going to university, and a shift in laws and culture. But to get ahead, women still need to clear a lot of hurdles.
“You need to be committed and hard-working, of course,” said Sahar Nasr, Minister of Investment and International Cooperation of Egypt. “But you also need a conducive environment. This is where affirmative action matters.” Nasr is one of a record eight female ministers in the Egyptian government and part of a broader societal shift. For Arab women, “economic empowerment is a means to political and social empowerment,” she said.
Some favour more government intervention, including in parental leave policies, to accelerate change. “The way business currently works, is not friendly for the family,” said H.R.H. Princess Dina Mired, President of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). “Usually the woman takes the cut.” As a solution, she suggested that “society should support the family more,” and mandate better parental leave, including for men.
A survey revealed during the panel showed that 66% of employees “believe that governments should intervene in private-sector companies and set targets for gender diversity.” Hani Ashkar, Senior Partner, Middle East, PwC, agreed. “We’ve forced a target of 50% of women at the entry level, and it has changed the company,” he said. But he acknowledged that shortcomings remain. “We’re still very light at the top. That’s an issue,” he said.
There was, however, no consensus on targets. “I struggle with the idea of setting targets, said Mariam Al Foudery, Group Chief Marketing Officer, Agility. “We should be counting, tracking and publishing how many women we have in the workforce. But mandate numbers? No.” She said she favours a more enlightened route. “The day I went to the hospital to give birth was the day Agility made me Vice-President,” she said. “That show of support was invaluable.”
Ultimately what’s needed is a widely held cultural shift, said Sofana Rabea Dahlan, Founder and Managing Partner, Sofana Rabea Dahlan Law Firm. “When I graduated as a lawyer in 1995, women were not allowed to study or practice law in Saudi Arabia,” she said. One government employee told her she wouldn’t get a certificate “in a 100 years.” But, 25 years later, there are 270 female lawyers in the Kingdom, and renewal of certificates can be done online. “We have to be patient with our people,” she said.
But many young women at the meeting pointed out that the time for patience has passed. “Why are we still discussing gender equality?” asked Sarah Alharthey, Co-Founder of Wujd, and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper from the Jeddah Hub. “Equality is a moral question, and a moral demand,” she said. “You should put quotas.” Ashkar agreed: “If you don’t set targets, you won’t see change.”
The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa is being held at the Dead Sea in Jordan on 6-7 April in partnership with the King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD). The meeting marks the 10th hosted by Jordan since it was first convened at the Dead Sea in 2003. It is bringing together more than 1,000 government, business and civil society leaders from over 50 countries.