Public vs. Private: An Analysis of Women’s Workforce Participation In the United Arab Emirates
Author: Nicole Smith, April 2020.
“The UAE government has made continued efforts to further strengthen and expand upon the opportunities afforded to women within the country’s public sector. Yet, for the government to achieve its National Agenda 2021, which aims to transition the country from a resource-based to a knowledge-based economy, a focus on the private sector and women’s participation within it is critical.”
Image from Awla Fellowships.
The percentage of women over 15 years old who are participating in the labor force within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is 51%, a number that has remained steady for the past two years (“Labor Force Participation Rate, Female”). Of the total labor force in the UAE, however, women account for only 16.9%, a figure that has increased by about 1.0% each year since 2010 (“Labor Force, Female”). Women are largely employed within the public sector, where they hold 66% of government jobs, 33% of leadership positions, and 30% of the UAE Cabinet (“Hessa Bint Essa Bohemian”). Women’s presence within the public sector has been attributed to: the government providing better benefits, higher salaries, and more flexibility; a cultural preference among Emiratis to work for the state based on a sense of national duty; and quota-specific efforts led by the government’s Gender Balance Council (Aleter).
The UAE government has made continued efforts to further strengthen and expand upon the opportunities afforded to women within the country’s public sector. Yet, for the government to achieve its National Agenda 2021, which aims to transition the country from a resource-based to a knowledge-based economy, a focus on the private sector and women’s participation within it is critical. Despite the government’s concentrated effort to increase the number of nationals working within the private sector, an initiative called “Emiratization,” in 2018 only 3.8% of the sector was composted of Emiratis (“Emiratisation Rate in the Private Sector”). More than 90% of the private sphere is composed of foreign workers (“United Arab Emirates”). Of that small percentage of nationals working within the private sector, women make up only 10% of formal entrepreneurs and hold 5.5% of senior positions (“Gender Balance Guide”).
A 2010 ruling by the Ministry of Labor requires that at least 15% of total staff in private companies must be UAE nationals (Aleter), yet that percentage is not gender disaggregated. In a sector that has demonstrated a bias against women, not only in the UAE but also around the world (Cohen),additional efforts beyond quota-based initiatives are needed to combat hurdles faced by women. Such hurdles include: a lack of flexible hours, limited role models, the double burden around unpaid household labor, and more.With this context in mind, this research aims to uncover the strategies being used by the UAE government to both attract and retain women within the private sector.
This analysis used as a baseline a 2011 census report titled “The Comprehensive Study on: The Issues, Needs and Priorities of Women in Abu Dhabi,” which focused on overall job creation and perceptions of the private sector (Al Jenaibi et al 1). Women in Abu Dhabi serve as an interesting sample set in this regard since Abu Dhabi holds the largest amount of the UAE’s oil, is considered more socially conservative than Dubai, and hosts a large number of government jobs as the UAE’s capital. The women’s responses to the survey, therefore, likely reflected the makeup of Abu Dhabi’s geographic location and traditional cultural norms.
Researchers found supporting evidence for this theory as the majority of women surveyed not only prefer to work for the public sector, but they expect the government to provide them with a public sector job (Al Jenaibi et al 15). Their preference stems from a variety of factors, including the public sector being viewed as more “socially acceptable,” flexible, better for pregnant women and young mothers, and above all else, associated with higher salaries (Al Jenaibi et al 35). Many women cited the lack of career advancement opportunities beyond entry-level positions in the private sector and the issue of “window dressing,” whereby women are only hired to meet the nationalization quota. It was also found that the private sector tends to avoid recruiting Emirati women all together due to perceived additional costs related to accommodations, such as potentially needing to create gender-segregated office space (Al Jenaibi et al 4). The most appropriate jobs for women, as viewed by those surveyed, lie within education, the civil service, and social services. The jobs viewed as least appropriate were within the army, police force, construction, hospitality, advertising, and engineering—the latter four mostly found within the private sector (Al Jenaibi et al 19).
To address the challenges uncovered in the survey, researchers recommended several policy options to the government of Abu Dhabi aimed at changing perceptions and offering incentives for employers to attract more women within the private sector. These recommendations included: reexamining the industries that women want to work in and reevaluating quota systems accordingly, directly subsidizing any public/private difference in women’s salaries, and paying private companies a fee to cover additional wages. Researchers argued that these policy changes would be more financially sustainable than creating additional bureaucratic positions within the government and would not have a negative impact on foreign direct investment (FDI). They would also reduce remittance outflows, and begin to normalize female Emiratis working in a wider range of sectors (Al Jenaibi et al 40-45).
Nearly 10 years after the results of the survey, fieldwork and in-person interviews were conducted for this paper over a two-week period in January 2020 in Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah, and Dubai with government officials, public sector representatives, and business leaders. This research aimed to discover if and how perceptions of the private sector have changed among women and if the strategies being used to further diversify economic empowerment include any of the policy recommendations made within the previously mentioned 2011 report.
A January 2020 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Her Excellency Shamsa Saleh, CEO of the Gender Balance Council and the Dubai Women Establishment, revealed that the government’s first step toward increasing women’s involvement within the UAE economy was to remove legislation that restricted their participation. This included lifting all restrictions on women working at night and within jobs deemed hazardous, arduous, or morally or socially inappropriate. Additional positive legislation in the UAE’s labor law allows women to work within the mining, construction, manufacturing, energy, water and agriculture, and transportation sectors. In addition to removing barriers, the new legislation also ensures gender wage equality, protections against pregnancy discrimination, and extended maternity leave. The government also amended Article 71 from the Personal Status Law, giving women the right to leave home for work without requiring permission (“Gender Balance Legislation”).
Following a 2012 Cabinet resolution on women’s representation on the boards of federal entities, the Gender Balance Council set a goal of women occupying 20% of board seats by 2020 (Pupic). In 2019, the Council reached 17% of board seats being held by women, according to H.E. Saleh. While the types of boards that were targeted were not specific to the private sector, the strategies deployed to reach the Council’s goal can easily extend across industries. This includes providing training for women interested in becoming successful board members, and the development of a database for companies looking for qualified candidates. The Council also recently completed a pilot program with the banking sector to help companies assess their level of gender equality.
Incentivizing Employers and Employees:
To further encourage and accelerate private sector growth in the UAE, the government launched Ghadan 21 in 2018, an AED 50 billion (13.6 billion USD) research and development (R&D) fund for private companies (“Government Accelerators”). Companies are provided with incentives such as rebates of up to 50% on R&D spending, a further 25% if a new product reaches the market, tax breaks for tourism initiatives in underdeveloped parts of Abu Dhabi, a government guarantee of 75% of bank loans to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to reduce risk and encourage lending, and more (Khan and Sanderson). While these incentives do not include specific tactics to increase the participation of Emirati women in the private sector, they can be seen as increasing awareness of the opportunities available to Emiratis at large.
During a January 2020 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Ruba Al Hassan, the acting CEO of Ghadan 21 and one of the pivotal players in the development of the 2011 census study, it was uncovered that SMEs participating in the fund are operating mostly within low production areas such as specialty coffee shops and clothing design. One of Ms. Al Hassan’s regrets is not structuring Ghadan 21’s funding to specific and emerging growth areas such as health care, cybersecurity, and environmental sustainability, as well as outlining specific economic returns needed for SMEs to participate.
Ms. Al Hassan also noted that there is still a skills mismatch within the economy for women. Emirati women, according to Ms. Al Hassan, are still encouraged to “follow their passions” and view working as more of a hobby rather than to seek and receive training for professional-level positions. This has contributed to leadership pipeline issues within both the public and private sectors. While Ms. Al Hassan has seen women make strides within family-owned private companies, particularly within the real estate sector, overall female leadership and workforce participation gaps remain. “The incoming workforce will not have an option of not working after college,” said Ms. Al Hassan. “The government will no longer be able to afford the current rate of income subsidization.”
To tackle these challenges, the UAE government is beginning to form partnerships with companies within the financial services and investing sectors (i.e. KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Mubadala) to create subsidized apprenticeship programs for both men and women. While Ms. Al Hassan is not yet confident in the results of these efforts, there are plans to expand similar pilot programs into additional industries. Another initiative is a three-strike rule for Emiratis, whereby if they reject three job offers from the private sector while awaiting a government job, they lose access to social benefits. Unfortunately, with a population very attached to what is provided by the government, this form of legislation currently lacks strong enforcement. An additional idea currently being debated is not allowing the government to hire candidates unless they have prior private sector experience. Ms. Hassan is also actively recruiting Silicon Valley-based companies to establish offices in Abu Dhabi. These companies’ high salaries and generous benefits packages can further assist in attracting more Emiratis to the private sector, while simultaneously increasing FDI and innovation.
In a January 2020 meeting in Ras Al Khaimah, Raki Phillips, CEO for the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, said the UAE is starting to see perceptions shift on women working within the hospitality sector, which was one of the industries perceived as least appropriate for women in the 2011 study. Of the 20% of Emiratis employed at Mr. Phillips’s organization (reflecting the government’s mandate for private companies), 90% are women. While the Tourism Development Authority is a government organization, it is important to note that Mr. Phillips is an American who was recruited by the UAE government for the position. By appointing a foreign-born business executive to a top leadership position within the important tourism industry, the government is recognizing a need to change how it approaches hiring to further stimulate growth, further accelerating movement between Emiratis and expatriates within the public and private sectors. Despite government oversight, Mr. Phillips maintains that the Tourism Development Authority operates much like a private company. In this sense, Mr. Phillips sees his organization as providing a strong platform for female role models within the hospitality sector.
Role modeling has also played a central role in attracting women to the aviation industry. Sheikha Mozah Al Maktoum, a member of the UAE’s royal family, currently serves as a female pilot for Emirates airlines and documents her travels across her social media handles (Haidrani). The Emirates Group employs close to 1,150 Emirati women who work across department lines in a diverse array of functions such as cabin crew, satellite maintenance, and managerial and executive roles. Women currently hold 20% of leadership positions at the company (“Emirates Gives Center Stage to Women”).
Opportunities for the International Community
Foreign service officers at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi shared in a January 2020 meeting that there are approximately 1,500 US companies in the UAE. Yet, a growing number of businesses from Asia, particularly China, are emerging in the region due to the UAE government’s ability to attract higher investment costs. One of the limitations of this study is that gender-disaggregated data for employees working for private companies is not available. The US could gain a competitive edge by offering better benefits for Emirati employees. For example, representatives from NYU Abu Dhabi shared during an on-site meeting in January 2020 that private companies provide expatriates working for them in the UAE with full benefits, housing, and a plane ticket home every two years. What if these incentives were adjusted for Emiratis? Since nationals already receive benefits and access to housing from the government, the funds private companies need for expatriates could be used to level salaries with government positions. US firms could also make a commitment to increase the number of Emiratis hired at each company from 20% to 30% with a focus on women.
As a result of the UAE’s active efforts to increase women’s workforce participation, the country improved its score on the World Bank’s 2020 Women, Business and the Law index by 29.4 points, making it one of the most-improved economies (“Women, Business and the Law 2020” 10). The report cited the recent legislation changes, the establishment of the Gender Balance Council, and the development of the Gender Balance Guide – which is a set of recommendations for UAE businesses on how to achieve gender balance within the workplace— as key reasons for the country’s improved ranking. During the January 2020 meeting in Abu Dhabi with H.E. Saleh, she said there are still perception gaps in what Emirati women are capable of within the international business community. For example, she shared that attendees at global conferences often stereotype Emirati women or associate them with barriers that exist within neighboring countries such as an inability to legally drive. Due to this, succeeding in international benchmarks such as the Women, Business and the Law index remain priorities for the UAE government in its quest to be seen as a leader in women’s economic empowerment. As H.E Saleh said, “Women are way beyond driving in the UAE, we fly jet fighters.”
Less than 10 years after “The Comprehensive Study on: The Issues, Needs and Priorities of Women in Abu Dhabi” was delivered to the UAE’s government, gradual yet essential change has taken place to attract more Emirati women to the private sector. This includes comprehensive legislative reform, access to funding and incentive programs, role modeling, and changing perceptions of the kinds of jobs seen as acceptable for women within society.
While the wage gap remains a challenge in attracting more Emiratis to the private sector, the government has begun testing several pilot programs closely aligned with policy recommendations put forward in the 2011 study. To combat women leaving the workforce or seeking more secure governmental positions after having children, further structural efforts can focus on increasing the engagement of men within unpaid labor, particularly childcare. By increasing the length of paternity leave for men from three days to a more meaningful time period, women may feel more supported in remaining in the workforce.
It should also be noted that finding ways to increase meaningful economic participation for women, creating a strong leadership pipeline, and keeping women in the workforce after they have children are not unique to the UAE. What is striking is that it is the public, rather than the private sector, that currently offers the gold standard of opportunity, which differentiates the UAE from countries such as the US. Areas of future study can continue to look at the strategies the UAE government uses to coordinate between sectors to maximize the potential of its female workforce, as engaging more than half the world’s population should be an economic imperative for all countries focused on transitioning their economies towards newfound growth.
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