The theme for International Women’s Day on 08 March 2017 is ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030’
. This theme recognizes that the working world is changing and that there are significant implications, opportunities and challenges ahead for women across the globe. As UN Women notes, “On the one hand, we have globalization, technological and digital revolution and the opportunities they bring, and on the other hand, the growing informality of labour, unstable livelihoods and incomes, new fiscal and trade policies and environmental impacts – all of which must be addressed in the context of women’s economic empowerment.”
In the MENA region, the accomplishments of Arab women in the last few decades are at the heart of major changes in the region’s business and financial landscape and have driven unprecedented progress in the context of women’s economic empowerment. Across the region, women are graduating from universities in far greater numbers than men and in subjects such as computer science, engineering and law, in what the World Bank has called a ‘reverse gender gap’. The MENA countries, especially the GCC states, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, are among the world’s fastest-evolving hubs of entrepreneurship, with a dynamic entrepreneurial scene gaining momentum especially among young and female innovators in the MENA.
Women are increasingly at the helm of some of the region’s most prominent family businesses, and are also advancing rapidly in professions previously restricted to men, including diplomacy, law, finance, medicine, aviation, and STEM careers, challenging gender bias in nearly every sector and sphere and rising to the upper echelons of corporate leadership. In addition, more Arab women than at any other time in history are playing prominent roles on corporate boards and in executive leadership throughout the MENA region.
Arab women are now also successfully running for political and legislative office, serving in parliament and senior public service. Others are levelling the playing field in law and the judiciary, breaking new ground as lawyers, judges, and professors. In addition to senior cabinet positions, Arab women are serving as Governors, Ambassadors and leading diplomatic figures around the world, and we are seeing more women being appointed and elected to leading, high impact, high visibility roles in the international development community.
Although it is important to recognise the phenomenal progress that has been made, we are also aware that many challenges still remain. The OECD estimates that only 27% of women in the MENA region join the labour force compared with 51% of women in other low, middle and high-income economies. According to the UNDP Arab Human Development Report 2016, more than two thirds of women in Arab countries in the 15–29 age group are not in the labour force, compared with 20% among young Arab men and 50% among young women worldwide. Economic participation among women also varies significantly from country to country in the MENA region, especially between the GCC and other Arab States. To illustrate this, World Bank figures for female participation in the workforce in 2016 stood at around 47% in the UAE, 39% in Bahrain, 43% in Kuwait, and 51% in Qatar (the highest economic engagement rate for women in the Arab world), and 15% in Algeria, 24% in Egypt, 27% in Morocco, 15-16% in Iraq and Jordan, 25% in Tunisia, and 24% in Lebanon.
The overall rate of parliamentary participation of women in the Arab States is, as of January 2017, at 18% (up from 13% in 2012 and 9% in 2010), evidence that Arab women are becoming more deeply engaged in the political structures and legislative processes of the region despite the universally low representation of women in the political sphere. However, despite the increase from previous years, the Arab States still have one of the lowest rates of political representation of women compared to 27% in both Europe and the Americas, according to the InterParliamentary Union’s 2017 figures.
Gender diversity in business, political and public life, academia, entrepreneurship, executive leadership and on corporate boards is a guiding mission on which every AIWF Corporate Partner is deeply engaged. In fact, the link between gender diversity and the development of a robust MENA economy was one of the key findings of a new report developed by AIWF Institutional Partner the Pearl Initiative
, the UAE-based business-led non-profit organisation, and AIWF Global Partner the Sharjah Business Women Council
, launched in collaboration with AIWF Global Benefactor Partner PepsiCo
, in Riyadh in February 2017
To summarise the key findings of this valuable research jointly produced by three key AIWF Global Partners, the report found that although acquisition and retention of the right female talent is a significant challenge for the region, five best practices to improve gender diversity and promote women leaders and executives in the region emerge:
1. Creating balanced corporate culture through setting the stage for gender diversity in the workplace and providing role models.
2. Investing in building career paths through structured career planning, mentorship and networking.
3. Improving work/life balance through implementing flexible work policies, offering support systems and providing women-friendly facilities.
4. Adopting HR policies that ensure equality, such as harassment prevention.
5. Taking on the role of advocates of female employment within the wider community through raising awareness, launching initiatives and, in general, acting as ambassadors of the cause.
In the 16 years since AIWF was founded by Haifa Al Kaylani in London in 2001, AIWF has worked tirelessly with governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and the media to address significant economic and societal developments in the region and advocate for the advancement of gender parity and the empowerment of women in all spheres. 2017 presents AIWF with a number of exciting opportunities to explore new dimensions and perspectives, address emerging challenges for Arab women and youth in a global context, and engage with new international contacts towards even greater cross-cultural collaboration in every sector and every sphere.
In 2017, the Board of Directors of AIWF is committed to expanding the reach and impact of AIWF, and enriching our unique business and networking offerings to Arab women not only in the MENA countries but also in Europe, the US and Asia. We are all greatly looking forward to continuing all collaborations throughout the year with our partners, members and key contacts around the world in honour of our core mission for women in the Arab region and beyond, Building Bridges, Building Business
, examining enablers for entrepreneurial success for young business innovators in the emerging Arab economy and sharing best practices for gender diversity that will truly effect change for women in business in the Arab world.
The Board of the Arab International Women’s Forum joins me in thanking you all for your invaluable support of our organisation in the year ahead. We wish you all a wonderful International Women’s Day and a peaceful and prosperous year ahead. Rania Rizk
Arab International Women’s Forum