Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

How women’s empowerment can drive competitiveness in the Middle East

More female representation is needed in leadership roles to help facilitate women’s empowerment.

More female representation is needed in leadership roles to help facilitate women’s empowerment. Image: Pexels.

Maroun Kairouz
Head of Middle East and North Africa, World Economic Forum
Kelsey Goodman
Community Engagement Lead, World Economic Forum
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Gender Inequality

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  • Progress is needed to secure economic equality for women in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • According to the World Economic Forum, the region's gender gap will take 115 year to close.
  • Increasing female representation in leadership roles can improve global competitiveness.

It will take 115 years to close the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report.

The region does well in providing equal health outcomes and continues to improve in reducing the gap in educational attainment. However, considerable progress is still needed to secure equal economic opportunities and governmental empowerment. Indeed, the average participation rate of women in the labour force is 31% and in six countries women’s pay is on average less than a quarter of what men make. Across the region, not enough women are represented in boardrooms, parliaments, and cabinets to participate actively in decision-making.

That said, policymakers have been paying greater attention to these disparities as illustrated by the flurry of initiatives that have sprung up to address the issue. For instance, the United Arab Emirates achieved the highest level of gender parity in the Arab World. It has established parity of representation in its parliament, the Federal National Council, nine women are serving on its cabinet and it has required all listed companies to appoint at least one woman sit on their boards. The elevation of Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology, to become the Chairperson of the UAE Space Agenda and lead scientist of the team (80% of whom are women) in charge of the Mars Mission provided a potent leadership role model for girls in the UAE and beyond.

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In addition, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have made pay discrimination illegal in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, the driving ban on women has been lifted by a royal decree and women have been given more control over their personal affairs. As a result of these efforts, Saudi Arabia was amongst the 10 most improved countries since 2006 globally and the World Bank has ranked the country as a “top reformer on women’s rights at work”.

Morocco and Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia as one of the most improved countries in the region. Both these countries can attribute their rise in ranking to progress made in economic participation and outcomes. Last year, the Moroccan Parliament adopted a reform to set mandatory quotas for women on the boards of publicly traded companies – a law based on international experience that quota-based approaches are effective for increasing women’s participation in corporate governance, management and workforce participation long-term.

Positive momentum in Morocco may be increasing. The outcomes of the country’s 2021 election resulted in new records for women’s leadership in the country: seven women hold key positions in the cabinet, including Nadia Fettah Alaoui as a Minister of Economy and Finance, Leila Benali as the Minister of Energy Transition and Sustainable Development, and Fatima Ezzahra El Mansouri, Minister of National Territorial Planning, Urban Planning, Housing and Urban Policy.

Creating equal economic opportunities

These positive developments notwithstanding, women bore the brunt of the socio-economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women were more likely to experience salary cuts and layoffs, manage the additional domestic burdens of caring for children or elderly family members, and work in the informal economy without social safety nets. Noted in an ILO report, in the Arab states of MENA, women’s employment dropped by 4.1%, compared to 1.8% for men (while in Israel, twice as many women lost their jobs as men).

With the compounding crises of the ongoing pandemic, potential for a global recession, and the heightening climate emergency, leaders in the region cannot afford to let the potential of half of their countries’ citizens go to waste.

Without the full participation of women in economic activity, the MENA states will find it extremely difficult to stimulate their economies to reach optimal competitiveness. The high levels of education of women in the MENA region compared to the low levels of women’s economic and political participation demonstrate a costly mismatch wherein countries are losing out on the full capabilities of a large swath of educated, skilled workers and leaders.

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And though much is already being undertaken, more is still needed at a quicker pace: providing additional options on child and social care, rethinking parental leave, adapting social safety nets, further tightening laws against sexual harassment at work and making sure that gender-specific consequences of technological change are taken into account.

Just as crucial, the region cannot hope to systematically improve the conditions of its women, while several of its countries, from Syria to Yemen, are blighted by war and instability.

A step change of the scale needed will require a concerted mobilization of energies from governments, businesses, and civil society. For instance, Egypt and Jordan have launched in collaboration with World Economic Forum a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator aiming to advance more women into management and leadership positions, close gaps in remuneration and increase women's participation in the labour force by working closely with leaders from the private sector.

We are looking forward to supporting more such partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa to turbocharge progress on gender parity.

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