ON THE ROAD TO EQUALITY

Abu Dhabi 2017 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: FEMALE EMPOWERMENT

Today the UAE stands as a beacon in the fight for female empowerment in the Gulf. The country has adopted an inclusive agenda to further integrate women into the highest levels of management in public and private entities, rewritten part of its legislation to reorient it toward gender equality, and designed programs to foster the creativity of a growing number of female entrepreneurs.

The Statistics Centre of Abu Dhabi (SCAD) estimates that 70% of university students in the UAE are women. According to SCAD'ss Emirati Women, Past and Present 2016 report, women account for 73% of the public sector's employee base and young female entrepreneurs represent 10% of the 20,000 people working in the country's dynamic startup and SME ecosystem

Emirati women have penetrated the most unlikely industries for gender parity. In finance, a still largely male-dominated sector around the globe, Emirati women lead the likelihood of occupying positions in the banking and financial services after graduation with a 29% ratio against an 11% for their male counterparts. In sectors such as nuclear energy and medical physics, the UAE reached 50-50 gender parity in 2016. Things also look promising for women in aeronautical engineering and space technologies, where they currently represent the majority of the workforce in the country.

Strata Manufacturing, the leading aerospace manufacturer in the UAE, states that women make up 86% of its workforce. Even in the oil and gas industry, traditionally the most uneven for gender equality, ADNOC's new leadership established a gender parity agenda that includes appointing women in least 15% of its senior management positions, increasing the number of Emirati women recruits to 30% by 2020, and appointing at least one female CEO at the helm of one of its subsidiaries.

The country's leadership, however, acknowledges that challenges remain hefty. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap, the Middle East still has a parity distance of 39% between men and women, making it the largest gap in the world. It also still lags behind on the overall economic participation with a 42 to 92 women to men ratio. The gender income gap and the still timid role of women in managerial positions pose the biggest challenges for the UAE in its quest for gender equality.

The response to these challenges, nonetheless, has been outlined in the country's plans for the years ahead. The UAE has the target of becoming one of the top 25 countries for gender equality by the time it celebrates its 50th anniversary as a nation in 2021. This journey facilitated the creation of the UAE Gender Balance Council (GBC) in May 2015, aimed at enhancing the country's efforts in driving women's participation in national development. Part of the body's 2017 agenda involves three core initiatives to enhance gender balance: documenting the efforts of supporting bodies through the UAE Gender Balance Seal, the implementation of the UAE Gender Balance Order, and the establishment of the Best Three UAE Gender Balance Initiatives Award. An integral part of the GBC also includes measuring the extent to which government entities provide a friendly and supportive environment for working mothers.

This rights-enhancing framework led to an unprecedented increase of female representation at the 2016 Federal National Council elections, moving from 17.5% to 22.5%, and a 27.5% female representation in the cabinet. Moreover, the elections were marked by the historic appointment of Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi as President of the Council, making her the first woman to occupy such a position not only in the history of the UAE, but of the entire Arab world. She is accompanied by other eight other women occupying key senior positions in the Emirati government.

The leaps carried by the UAE in the past years have even caught the attention of the UN. The international body chose Abu Dhabi to open the first office of UN Women, its entity working for female empowerment, in the Arab region. Today, the UAE stands at the best time in its history to reach gender equality. The challenges remain huge but the opportunities stand taller than them. Never before have Emirati women had the power to transform their own nation. Only time will tell how gender parity will transform the social thread of the UAE.