The stereotype image that emerges with these words is that of an illiterate, suppressed, veiled subservient person controlled by her patriarchs with no freedom to speak, to have opinions, or to work.
Who is the modern Middle Eastern woman? Is she helpless, or is she, for example, from the UAE where “Women make up about 70 percent of the college and university population, and their participation in the workforce has increased by six folds since the 1970s (about 25 percent currently).”? Or is the modern Middle Eastern woman from Qatar, where the number of women owned businesses is growing rapidly and contributing to the economic development of the country?
Arab women today are estimated to have $40 billion of personal wealth at their disposal. Yet they still have the lowest rates of labor force participation. Is it the fact that there is still a lifelong expectation of women in this part of the world to be responsible for the care and emotional wellbeing of the extended family? Does it depend on the fact that there are widely varying levels of education and wealth that make it impossible to look at women from this part of the world as a single economic and cultural group?
From my personal experience, the challenges I faced in the beginning of my career are drastically different from those I encounter today. As a young Middle Eastern woman under 30, the burden was on me to prove that I could function in the same arena as high officials and ministers. But it was easy to impress others because the bar was set so low for a woman of my age and background. Moving to Europe and North America changed the equation. I stopped being the impressive minority and became one of many capable young professionals. Today, the Middle East has grown more comfortable with women in positions of leadership. In fact, in the UAE there has been a particular interest in promoting women to the forefront in government institutions, so much so that just by being a female, the chances of advancement grew drastically.
In my opinion, what truly differentiates women in the workforce is their emotional intelligence where women tend to score higher. This could be related to women’s socially sensitive nature resulting from biological differences and other differences in early childhood socialization. According to Reuven Bar-On’s study ‘Emotional and Social Intelligence: Insights from the Emotional Quotient Inventory,’ female leaders tend to score higher in empathy, interpersonal relationships and social responsibility, while male leaders score higher in stress tolerance, impulse control and adaptability. In that way, women are finally getting the recognition they deserve for high performance leadership.
Luckily, we have reached a point in history where technology is facilitating the pooling of resources for the greater good. Rather than concentrating on our gender and cultural inequalities, we can take the best from each and build business models that encompass rather than exclude. Women in positions of leadership in this area are increasingly and successfully bringing in elements that are making them key players in the business world. Following in the footsteps of pioneer Arab women leaders such as Hayat Sindi, Shirin Ebadi and Nawal El Saawadi, female business leaders are paving the way for the next generation of Middle Eastern women to reach greater heights as successful game players in the global economy.
Nairouz Bader – Envision – Dubai