With International Women’s Day on March 8 and Covid-19 threatening to increase gender inequality, re-assessing women’s role in society is more urgent than ever, says Her Excellency Ahood Al Zaabi, Director of the United Nations Department at the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in this open letter for Vogue Arabia.
As an Emirati woman born in the UAE, it took me some years to realize how lucky I am to experience a life rooted in the principles of education, boundless aspirations, and the freedom to choose the design of my future. I was always encouraged to believe in myself and that the force within me was to be reckoned with in a world that has unfinished business in empowering women. With Covid-19’s impact on women threatening to slow the pace of gender equality – which the latest Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum declares will take nearly a century to achieve – it has become even more urgent to rethink the role of women in economy and society.
Covid-19 is set to reshape our world, demanding creativity and change in the way that we work and live. Accelerating the pace of progress towards more gender inclusive global societies should therefore be a priority for national leaders in order to forge a future in which everybody contributes and benefits equally. It was revealed recently that the UAE climbed eight positions on the UN Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index, ranking first in the Arab world and 18th globally in 2020. This success has been reflected in some stunning achievements, such as the Mars Hope probe science team, which is 80% female, led by our female Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, HE Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri. Last year also saw the UAE begin work on the framework for its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which seeks to activate UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The plan, expected to be launched this year, underscores the UAE’s commitment to equal participation and full involvement of women in all efforts to maintain and promote peace and security, both regionally and globally.
It thrills me to be living in a society where women play a leading role in the most progressive arenas. The number of women enrolling in STEM subjects at universities in the UAE is remarkably high. For example, the ratio of female to male enrolment in computer science at the United Arab Emirates University for 2021 is 83 to 17. According to the Times Higher Education, this is far higher than many other countries.
Throughout history, female pioneers and inventors have overcome adversity and broken through barriers to change the world. Women wrote the first computer algorithm, created communications systems that paved the way for the modern invention of Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, fought for the right to vote, became military generals, and made groundbreaking discoveries – including radioactivity, which informed the development of radiotherapy used to treat so many illnesses today.
Despite these clear successes, the UNDP’s Gender Social Norms Index 2020 revealed the stark gender bias that continues to persist in some countries. Around half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders, and more than 40% feel that men make better business executives. Research on unraveling implicit biases has shown that characteristically, women are often viewed as prudent, emotional, and empathic in comparison to men, who are considered to be risk-prone, rational, and systematic. When this implicit bias escapes conscious detection, we can see how it impacts job opportunities for both genders: women are considered suitable for care work, the liberal arts, and human resources while men are considered well suited to technical jobs, scientific studies, and leadership roles.
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development outlines how harmful these prejudicial stereotypes can be. In the context of Covid-19, women have been over-represented in the categories of employment most vulnerable to job losses. This in turn means that the socio-economic impacts of the crisis are particularly severe for women and are often exacerbated by region-specific social norms and legal frameworks, which is why it is so important to proactively detect and keep in check the policy blind spots that adversely affect women. For example, in the UAE we recently announced progressive new laws on inheritance, divorce, and crimes against women that mark a step forward for the protection of women’s rights in our country.
With the Covid-19 pandemic putting the brakes on the pace of the advancement of women’s rights in some areas, we need to collectively and urgently rethink the role of women in economy and society. Strategies for gender balance should be built into recovery plans worldwide so that economic hardship no longer has a disproportionate impact on half of the world’s population. The answer lies in preparing women for jobs that will be at the frontier of new and future economies. According to a World Economic Forum report on the jobs of tomorrow, there will be greater demand for roles at the forefront of data and artificial intelligence but also the continuation of roles that rely on human interaction, such as marketing and content production, and those at the forefront of people and culture.
With this dual validity of digital and care economy jobs for the future, it is vital that implicit bias does not set limitations on the sectors open to women – recognizing the female characteristics that lead to strength in leadership and innovative roles for the professions of tomorrow. The limitations of implicit bias should not preclude us from imagining what can be achieved if the other half of the global population is truly empowered. The time has come to actualize the empowerment of women as a prerequisite for the future harmony and prosperity of our planet. On every level, gender equality makes sense.
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Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia