Women’s empowerment in the Middle East report PDF 2016

The year 2015 was significant for humanity. World leaders, businesses and NPOs gathered to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and on a separate occasion nearly 200 governments signed the Paris Agreement at COP21, an enduring, legally binding treaty on climate action. Despite their notable, distinct objectives, the SDG and COP21 have something in common: the advancing and greening of society through women.

The lead-up to COP21 saw more than 60 governments embark on a journey towards the green economy, an economy which promotes sustainable development by fostering environmental health and social equity. Similarly, anticipation of the SDGs inspired almost 100 reforms, increasing female economic opportunities throughout 65 economies. So significant is the movement towards gender equality in 2016 that Pantone have even created a unique color to symbolize it.


Almost all economies have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities. In the absence of appropriate gender equality policies, the green economy (as shared with any economy) may serve to sustain or exacerbate existing gender inequalities. Gender differences, particularly in law, matter because equality of opportunity allows women to make the choices that are best for them, their families and their communities. Where opportunities for women are unequal and where legal differences remain prevalent, women are constrained in their capacity to make autonomous economic decisions and this can have negative economic consequences. For instance, this is significant when women influence on average 80% of purchasing decisions made in the home. As consumers, women are also found to be greener than their male counterparts and more likely to purchase eco-friendly and recycled products. In business, women rather than men are found to be more successful in fostering good governance, incorporating social and environmental equity into the working culture of an organization (UNRSD, 2012).


The benefits of gender reform are immense; empowering women legally and politically allows them to reflect their preferences in decision-making and this has an impact so much greater than at the level of the individual. By increasing their legal and political stance, women are able to move more freely, have greater institutional access and can contribute more beneficially to the economic agenda. This is supported by a study examining the voting rights in the United States, which found that within a year of voting rights being granted to women, voting patterns shifted to incorporate a 35% increase in local public health spending. This allowed for greater emphasis on local public health campaigns, which led to an almost 15% decrease in childhood diseases and mortality (World Bank Group, 2016). With Saudi Arabia extending the vote and candidacy to women for the first time in 2015, the Kingdom is paving the way for a new economic and social agenda, and one that is more aligned with the objectives of a green economy.

Nearly every economy in the world has at least one restriction on women’s work, such as lowering their earning potential, which in many cases limits the progress of business. Copious studies have found positive correlation in companies with women on their boards and financial success, out-performing male-only board companies by 47% (HBR, 2016; World Bank, 2016). Furthermore, a survey of 6500 companies (World Bank, 2016) found that greater female participation on boards reduces the likelihood of involvement in government scandals involving bribery, fraud and other factors likely to lower business confidence and reputation in the market.

With this correlation slowly being recognized by companies around the world, business leaders are demonstrating that it makes good business sense to create conditions favorable to attracting women to the workplace and also to put in place measures to retain, develop and promote women within their organizations. This means in particular not only fostering good governance but also expanding their market to include female customers, clients and investors (HBR, 2016), these being the likely drivers of sustainable behavior, practices and preferences.


Numerous economies are already making advances in the empowerment of women, with many establishing gender quotas to increase the representation of women at the highest level of government and the private sector. Globally, women represent 19% of parliamentarians, with 40% of economies having quotas for women members in parliament and local government. Egypt recently introduced a 25% women quota for local councils and 10% at the national level. In 2015, Saudi Arabia, where women own 12% of the firms in the country including 16% of large manufacturing firms according to World Bank, introduced a 20% reserved seat quota at national level to tackle the 0.1% of board seats currently held by women. Progression in this direction is much needed, with women constituting only 20-35% of the workforce in the GCC despite in, for example, Saudi Arabia, where women outnumber men in higher education, and 32% globally (World Bank, 2016). Internationally, it is evident that climbing the corporate ladder becomes tougher for women, with 24% of senior managers, 17% of board members, and only 12% of CEOs being women (Trends, 2015). The scales are tipped even further in Fortune 500 companies, with just 5% of women holding C-suite positions, and a recent study by Bloomberg Business (2015) indicated that the current trajectory leaves gender C-suite equality 100 years away.

Gender quotas are perhaps, though, a quick win’ for governments and corporate bodies seeking responsible performance, for they improve women’s descriptive representation while not necessarily improving their substantive representation. Having equality laws on the books and regulatory structures in place is therefore insufficient. The cultural mindset of an economy is paramount in enabling women to realize their newly-found status and thus transition to a sustainable, green economy. All over the world, it is the prevailing cultural mindset where the real challenges are found. However steady progress is being made on multiple levels: companies are striding forward in delivering international standards in the workplace through CSR strategies, governments are fostering more enabling environments by increasing female visibility through dedicated councils, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is commending facilitating frameworks such as the newly-launched Islamic Reporting Initiative (IRI) which empowers businesses to realize sustainability ambitions, one of which, as discussed above, is gender equality.

Businesses, since they transcend many political and geographical boundaries, have a leading role to play in positively influencing the economic and cultural environment. Their proximity to the energy and vision of the millennial generation means that they are at the cusp of a truly innovative, gender-balanced and green workforce. Therefore, if businesses wish to achieve real economic, social and green impact, they should complement quotas with a variety of mechanisms which enable women to be influential within the organization. This includes creating an open working culture providing a gateway for women to realize not only their own potential, but also the full potential of the company and the economy.

“One of the topmost agenda items for the OIC is making the advancement of women a priority across the Islamic world, a goal which is shared by the Islamic Reporting Initiative (IRI). In 2015, the OIC reassessed its Action Plan for the Advancement of Women adopted in 2008, and it is our intention that our growth in vision will further facilitate the progress of women on an economic and social level, benefiting national economies worldwide.”

Multiple studies of gender aspiration have suggested that while women have high expectations for their academic and professional careers, they are not necessarily endorsed to the same degree by their male peers. The underlying presumption is that a woman’s traditional role and potential role are mutually exclusive, but as encapsulated by the UN’s most recent gender campaign ‘He for She’ and as many governments and businesses are proving, women can fulfill more than one role with great energy, skill and impact.

He for She’ is a solidarity campaign for gender equality initiated by UN Women. The goal of the campaign is to engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights by encouraging them to take action against inequalities faced by women and girls. The campaign is grounded on the idea that gender equality is an issue that affects all people socially, economically and politically.

Article first published in 2016 in Middle East Business magazine