Dubai forum highlights gender imbalances at workplace

Strategies for global gender balance, the future of women at work, propelling female entrepreneurship in the region, and women’s role in government were among issues discussed.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Representatives of the Women Committee at the Dubai Airport Freezone Authority attend the Global Women’s Forum 2020 in Dubai. (DAFZA)
A long way to go. Representatives of the Women Committee at the Dubai Airport Freezone Authority attend the Global Women’s Forum 2020 in Dubai. (DAFZA)

DUBAI- More than half of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa are among states with the highest gender gaps in the world. Experts and officials at the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai, organised by the Dubai Women Establishment, discussed how such disparities harm countries’ economic output and social progress.

Conference speakers included former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, US White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, World Bank Group President David Malpass and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.

Strategies for global gender balance, the future of women at work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, propelling female entrepreneurship in the region, women’s role in government and the importance of female engagement in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 were among issues discussed.

Pedro Conceicao, director of the human development report office at the UN Development Programme, said technological advances could harm women’s employment if not properly addressed. “We have evidence today that new technologies associated with artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are more likely to put some jobs performed by women at risk [more] than men because women are overrepresented in jobs classified as routine,” Conceicao said.

“Second, we know that AI algorithms are trained given the information that’s fed to them, so many of them that are now used reflect the world we live in and we have evidence that some of the AI algorithms related to helping people find jobs don’t target women when it comes to high-paying jobs.”

He noted the importance of women’s participation in science and technology fields and pointed out that gender balance in the workplace often yields greater productivity.

“If women are part of the management of banks and supervisory authorities, banks tend to be more stable. So the benefits from including women in the economy would be much higher than just these mechanical estimates that have been traditionally done,” Conceicao said.

He blamed legal barriers and social norms for the challenge of women transitioning to the economy. “It’s fairness and living a life of dignity,” he added. “In a human development report in 1995, we had a sentence that read ‘human development that is not engendered is endangered’ and it was valid in 1995 as much as it is today.”

Further advancing gender equality, from a male’s perspective, will have to do with power because women are extremely underrepresented in important positions in government.

“We cannot achieve it without the whole of society,” said Caren Grown, senior director for gender at the World Bank Group. “It cannot happen until men step up as champions and change themselves, their institutions and the way they work. Even in the home, working alongside women to parent children is very important.”

She noted that female labour force participation remained low in the region — around 21% in 2018 compared with 74% for men.

“Unfortunately, the MENA region still has one of the highest wage gaps at about 40%,” Grown added, “and when we look at entrepreneurship, which is critical to the growth and development of an economy, only 28% of women own SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and there’s still [lack of] access to finance gap that’s still very hard.”

Two months ago, research by the International Finance Corporation on the venture capital and equity industry across emerging markets found that firms whose senior investment officers are gender-balanced have 10-20% higher returns on investment than firms that either have only males or only females.

“This argues for the balance itself,” Grown noted. “It’s because of the diversity of perspectives, of networks and experience and many companies almost ahead of the public sector are actually experiencing new approaches to create diversity on their corporate boards, in their senior management, in the pipeline and, most important, in the supply chain.”

Retaining women at work is equally critical, said Chiara Marcati, a partner at McKinsey & Company. Pointing to the company’s report, “Middle East Women at Work,” she listed four reasons women frequently leave their workplaces: cultural and social pressure, unconscious bias, limited role models and an unsupportive work environment.

Marcati argued that women in senior positions have their judgment questioned five times more often than men, while only half of women in their early career claim to have a role model.

“Seven-of-ten women report that they are the only senior female in the workplace and only two-of-ten senior women report feeling included,” Marcati said. “It’s sad but, regardless of the figures, senior women were found to be much more satisfied than men and this is possible because women are resilient, self-confident and find a way to move forward.”