DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (UAE) - The Middle East is commonly perceived by the rest of the world as less developed, or even repressive, in women's equality. Most of the rhetoric on how to solve the problem also argue that since it is the men who impede and control women, females should fight against and take over their oppressors to lead free and equal lives.
According to some women working towards equality in this region, such perceptions are somewhat true but incomplete. And instead of fending against, they argue that men's support and collaboration are effective solutions for female empowerment and gender balance.
In a Women's Empowerment Conference supported by the Global Women in Leadership Economic Forum last Monday, Hopscotch - the region's first platform offering professional women flexible work - invited 150 participants of various fields, female entrepreneurs, working mothers and corporate companies to address this issue.
Kicking off, ALF Administration's Managing Director Omaira Al Olama spoke about being silenced and sidelined as an Emirati woman. She said empowerment begins by changing mindsets and is multifaceted. "Empowerment comes in many shapes and forms. It comes from the women that teach us and the men that encourage us."
(Omaira Al Olama shares personal experiences of facing gender inequality and how empowerment started for her)
Besides discussing the lack of female representation in workplaces, boardrooms and frustrations of not being able to express themselves in the region, various business leaders and owners also mentioned how Middle Eastern societies increasingly see participation by both genders as necessary to building great families, businesses and countries.
Mona Tavassoli, CEO/founder of Mompreneurs Middle East added that women's empowerment is not really about men versus women. Agreeing that men can help equip women, she said, "I like to see more balanced women with both male and female traits."
In addition, many speakers credited their successes to their spouses' "good egos" and encouragement.
(Mona Tavassoli and a panel of speakers talking about the role men can play in empowering women)
For Anna Al Qasimi-Roberts, managing director of Nudge, her Arab husband's practical help extends beyond moral support.
"Men are 50 percent of the solution and my husband has been there from the early days when we initially worked together and since then he has acted as my consul, sound board for ideas and encourages me to take risks - far more than I would have on my own. My husband will share the workload of running a house when I have a busy schedule just as I support him when he is busy," she relates in an interview.
But aren't these women - mostly either foreign-born, bred, educated or part of Dubai's majority expatriate population - the more fortunate ones, we might ask? And how does the UAE compare with its region and the world in terms of gender disparity and economic opportunities?
United Nations’ 2016 Human Development Report rates the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of 159 countries. Measuring male-female imbalance in reproductive health, economic opportunities and empowerment, UAE ranks 46. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Qatar are 50 and 127 respectively.
GII indicates economic loss caused by gender imbalance and with the lowest number among these three Gulf nations (as seen in below chart), UAE shows its headway in women's equality and empowerment.
Another index, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report "quantifies the magnitude of gender disparities and tracks their progress over time, with a specific focus on the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics." Between 2015 to 2016, UAE went from 119 to 124 among countries researched.
Also a 46-year-old state, Qatar jumped from 122 to 119. Saudi Arabia, a much older nation of 85 years old, was 134 in 2015 before slipping to 141.
Zooming in on UAE, Hopscotch surveyed more than 500 working and non-working women ages 21 to 55 in March this year. Six out of 10 said the nation needs more equality, with 71 percent stressing that employers should drive this in areas of [work] flexibility, maternity leave, mentorship and training.
These findings helped springboard Hopscotch's conference.
"The goal of the conference was to enable networking and knowledge sharing between women, entrepreneurs and companies who hire and support women on a flexible basis," explains Co-founder and Managing Director Helen McGuire.
(Attendees shared personal experiences of overcoming unfair treatment and got advice about pursuing their dreams)
For some participants, it was time well-spent. Alicia Quereguan, 37, a Venezuelan mechanical engineer comments, “I feel that the conference discussed gender inequality and there were multiple contributors to this topic… [it] was a perfect way to network and get information about different businesses in the UAE that empower woman to pursue either corporate or entrepreneur career path.”
“Mompreneurs was the big takeaway for me! It gives you some tools to start up your business in the UAE.”
Other than companies and employers, McGuire also calls upon the media to push forth empowerment.
She says, “The media has been extremely supportive of Hopscotch since its inception, but perhaps the stories of companies that offer this are not well known enough. Through our platform at Hopscotch.ae and at our events we aim to hold entities such as Mastercard, PepsiCo and Nestle up as examples of what can and should be done, but it’s clear many more businesses need to jump on board in order for this to become the norm as it is in other regions."
Daphne Seah is a multi-platform managing editor-journalist in international news and content based in New York City. Covered youth, entertainment, lifestyle, sports, business, politics, world events, current affairs, etc. Lived in Singapore, Australia, Japan, and speaks 5 languages. She is now [...]