Three Ways To Tackle The Glass Ceiling In The MENA Region
Whenever people talk about women's rights and job opportunities in the Arab world, the discussion almost always deteriorates into a conversation about how women in Saudi Arabia can't drive. Somehow, people seem to forget that the Arab world is made up of 22 countries, spanning 13,152,830 sq. km., across two continents. Each country in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Gulf and the Levant reflect distinct cultures, especially when it comes to female participation in public and private life. That being said, according to an OECD report on MENA women in public life, published in 2014, women still only form 15.9% of representative bodies across the Arab world, whereas, the world average is around 21.8%.
While the lack of women in representative bodies in the MENA region maybe be disappointing, they are making a big splash in a different area: education. According to the World Bank, the participation of women in higher education has increased throughout the MENA region, especially in the GCC countries where they now represent 62% of the total number of students enrolled in university. With that said, three important questions remain: how can we get more female university graduates in the MENA region into the workforce? How can we keep them in the workforce? And last but not least, how can we get them into influential positions? This all comes back to the glass ceiling. How do we deal with the glass ceiling you ask? One "pane" at a time, because shattering things never helped anyone.
1. Building Stronger Private Sector-University Relationships
One of the biggest problems with our global higher education systems is that we don't prepare students for the so called "real world." Many young Arab women study what their parents tell them to study, because they believe that they can't or shouldn't pursue certain careers. But these cultural "policies" are hindering our economic growth, because they discourage educational diversity among young Arab females. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Bayt.com and YouGov on fresh graduates in the MENA region, only 43% of respondents, both male and female, agreed that their higher education experience prepared them for the workplace. How can we expect more female representation in different sectors of the workforce if we don't encourage women to pursue a suitable and quality education?
The key to increasing female representation in the MENA workforce is stronger ties between universities and the private sector. We have to encourage more companies and startups to share with female university students what kind of jobs the current and future job market will be offering, so they can pursue degrees that will better prepare them for those jobs. In fact, university career counseling offices should spearhead this effort by hosting networking events with university alumni, promoting mentorship programs with members of the private sector and making internships or job experience a mandatory part of completing a university degree.
2. Promoting Community-Driven Initiatives
According to the aforementioned survey conducted by Bayt.com and YouGov, 60% of respondents cited a lack of work experience as being the biggest challenge they faced when looking for employment. The next biggest challenge that graduates faced was knowing where to find relevant jobs to apply for. Not only are Arab females hindered by entrenched cultural values, they also have to battle many of the systemic problems that their male counterparts have to face. This is why community driven initiatives, like the UAE-based e7: Daughters of the Emirates, are so important. The mission of the e7 initiative is to inspire, train and connect 35 young women in the UAE every year, so they can implement social projects that will benefit their communities. By crowdsourcing networks, expertise and resources, the e7 committee are "hacking" various systems of hidden privilege to create new opportunities for Emirati and expatriate women to empower themselves and others in the UAE.
We can't wait for governments or social institutions to create more opportunities for females to get work experience and job opportunities. It is our responsibility as a community to use our resources to catalyze change. As I mentioned before, every Arab community is different, as is their attitude towards female participation in the public arena. Consequently, it is the responsibility of Arabs across the region to establish community-driven initiatives, programs and organizations that find relevant and creative ways to "hack" outdated systems of thought and create new ways of empowering, educating and employing women. Not only do community-driven initiatives, like e7, have a positive impact on the participants, they also optimize the use of local talent, experts and passion in the region to build a stronger sense of social cohesion and compassion.
3. Introducing Formal & Informal Committees
Unfortunately, many people wait for governments or HR departments to implement changes that will promote female empowerment. But waiting for these entities to implement legislative or administrative change isn't always the best solution. People in the upper and middle managements of governments and corporations should use their collective hard and soft power and work together to improve recruiting practices, salary gaps, maternal leave policies etc. By inviting employees in the public and the private sector to create formal and informal committees to discuss the subject of female empowerment, we can start having more widespread and constructive conversations about how we can all contribute to this movement.
However, if we're going to promote changes in legislative and administrative cultures, we have to promote changes that also respect "cultural sovereignty." While there are some restrictive stereotypes of women in the Arab world, there are many positive cultural values that deserve to be respected and preserved. By understanding why certain legislation and cultural values exists, decision makers and social influencers, both in the public and the private sector, can begin to de-emphasize less desirable cultures, and replace them with new and relevant ones that promote female empowerment across the Arab world.