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Capitalizing On Untapped Human Capital: Women As Economic Growth Drivers Women drive economic growth when given greater opportunity to participate equally in the labor force and can serve as growth accelerators.

By Meera Kaul

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Although working women contribute about US$3.4 billion to the UAE's economy, they still struggle to remain in the running- their average number is astonishingly small, compared to the overall labor force. So, if they are just as conversant with the nitty-gritty of the business world and potential aggregators of a significant rise in GDP, it begs the big question: what factors deter them from taking up the mantle?

As the founder of The Meera Kaul Foundation, I have been part of various panel discussions within the region and outside, where this, along with a range of other gender parity issues have been debated widely, ranging from "Are women as efficient as men in the corporate world?" to "Why do corporations have a big gap between the salaries of men and women?"

The first question does not even require answering– the proof of the pudding is in the proverbial eating, especially when you consider the likes of Fortune's Most Powerful Women that include PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and Hewlett Packard Company CEO and President, Meg Whitman. The second question is a little trickier to answer, but I believe that the answer lies with women themselves- and that knowledge was my primary motivation for establishing the Foundation, which works with individuals and corporations to address issues of gender bias and eradicate inequality by running gender sensitization initiatives and campaigns to raise awareness. Quite simply, when a woman works as hard as a man, then one definitely needs to fight for equality and equal pay.

There is an impressive and growing body of literature on women and the economy, most notably from global institutions such as the IMF, the OECD, the United Nations and the World Bank. This year, the G20 has also included women as a driver of growth as part of its overall progress agenda– but then how do we attain growth, sustain it, and make it inclusive?

With growth in much of the developed and developing world at risk of remaining in a state of "new mediocre," there are various solutions being pondered, one of them being the potential of the female labor force. Women drive economic growth when given greater opportunity to participate equally in the labor force and can serve as growth accelerators. This is true in both the advanced and emerging worlds. Women make up half the world's population, but their economic contribution remains below, in some cases far below potential, while at the same time education gaps are closing.

Related: Three Ways To Tackle The Glass Ceiling In The MENA Region

Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50% of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years, of which over half is due to girls having had access to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in education between men and women. But, for the majority of women, significant gains in education have not translated into better labor market outcomes.

A recent Economist Survey reveals that more women are studying STEM subjects at UAE universities than men, with the figure standing at 56.8% currently. While this may be cause for celebration, the fact remains that women are still vastly underrepresented in top management jobs in STEM fields both in the UAE and globally. According to Intel, the leading computing innovators, introducing 600 million additional women to the ICT sector can boost the GDP of developing countries by an estimated $13 billion to $18 billion. Such statistics and the general global job scenario brings sharp focus onto the percentage of women pursuing careers in STEM fields, highlighting a dire and pressing need to include this group into leadership positions, into places of influence like academia and governments, and into key decision-making roles.

Growth-driven economic agendas as highlighted by Intel's statistics require good policy options to empower women in the economy. Government policies should amalgamate with that of the private sectors, especially on issues such as pay parity, anti-discrimination initiatives, family-friendly workplace support and corporate board and management diversity. Some governments and leaders are now taking bold steps to encourage women into the labor force as a means to drive growth and are embracing policies to advance this change. For instance Japan's Prime Minister Abe's adoption of "womenomics" as a core component of his "Third Arrow" of reform is a case in point.

While policies need to be put in place, another battle that needs tactical ammunition is the second shift problem, popularly known as the double burden syndrome, which is reported as a major stumbling block for women. But this challenge has a relatively simple solution, with no undesirable side effects and a rather inexpensive fiscal impact. Support solutions such as providing access to high quality affordable childcare, supporting family-friendly work environments that allow family leave (for men and women) for child or elder care responsibilities, providing more flexible work alternatives, eliminating legal and other discriminatory barriers are to name a few. This not only leads to a more feasible work environment but also leads to an attitude shift that is essential in the UAE.

This growing understanding, together with increased policy focus, points to gender-driven growth as being one of the next frontiers, especially with the UAE adopting the new Emirates Science, Technology and Innovation Higher Policy and the 2020 vision. The new vision includes 100 national initiatives in important sectors such as education, health, energy, transportation, space and water. The strategy is to build a vibrant knowledge economy in the UAE with strong initiatives such as re-amplifying the focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in all UAE educational institutions.

While there are challenges that vary greatly from country to country, one thing that is becoming clearer is that the countries that embrace gender-targeted economic policies will likely have growth advantages in the coming years.

Related: Reaping The Rewards: The MENA Region's Female Entrepreneurs

Meera Kaul

Founder, The Meera Kaul Foundation

Over the last two decades of her career, Meera Kaul has incubated, financed and promoted technology enabled ventures in US, Europe and the emerging markets of Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Meera has the unique experience of being a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor, along with the exposure of having worked in venture capital and private equity domains. She continues to be involved with several startups the world over as an investor, or in an advisory role and holds a striking track record of four multi-million dollar exits. Meera is also an investor in several Silicon Valley startups, the founder of technology publications and sits on the board of various cutting-edge hi-tech ventures globally.

A committed philanthropist, Meera is also the founder of The Meera Kaul Foundation, a not-for-profit that works towards addressing gender bias in workplaces and empowering women through skills training and capacity building.

Besides being an accomplished technology geek, Meera has a degree in International Taxation and Financial Law from TJSL, and is also an alumni of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

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