Editor's Note: This is the third story in a six-week series focused on women and work in patriarchal nations in the Middle East. In the next few weeks BBC Capital will peek into the world of women trying to grow businesses in the region and the Middle Eastern women who have found success in the West.
The newest generation of women in the United Arab Emirates looks a lot like Farha Alshamsi: educated and career-minded.
The 31-year-old has two degrees, holds a senior position in a government agency and runs her own communications and advisory company on the side.
“We have women working in all sectors and the government does a lot to support women… families are encouraging both males and females to go out there and start their own career,” she said. “There are many women in government ministries and at executive levels in the public sector.”
At first glance, it appears that women in the UAE enjoy some of the best working conditions among the more patriarchal countries in the Middle East. But others say there is more to the story.
While UAE citizens like Alshamsi enjoy privileges including free education, housing and preferential access to public sector jobs, they account for barely 10% of the population.
The rest of the UAE’s workforce is made up of expatriates from all corners of the globe — including many women — who are attracted by the Emirates’ thriving economy, year-round sunshine and tax-free environment.
Within that expat workforce, the potential for career advancement is less certain. For one, it is dependent upon the type of visa women hold and their level of employment, which dictate access to pay, legal protection and benefits.
While there is now more acceptance of women — expats and nationals — in high-ranking positions, damaging stereotypes about their abilities and commitment still exist. Flexible schedules and other adjustments for working mothers remain scarce.
For Emirati women such as Alshamsi, career possibilities are generally very bright. Unlike their counterparts in more conservative Gulf neighbour states, Emirati women are employed in a range of sectors from the military and police, to engineering, media, fashion and management, although they still make up a tiny percentage of an expat-dominated workforce.
There are five female cabinet ministers in the UAE government and women are at the forefront of several key government agencies, including the team that helped the city secure the 2020 Expo and the Dubai Media Office, which is responsible for communications in the Emirate.
In February this year, the UAE vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced the formation of the UAE Gender Balance Council, which according to local press reports, will promote new strategies for female empowerment.
The council will be chaired by his daughter Sheikha Manal Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is already the president of the Dubai Women’s Establishment, created in 2006 to “identify and quantify the status of women in the workforce of Dubai”.
A different story
Within the expat workforce however, the potential for career advancement is subject to a slew of sometimes onerous regulations.
Women who work in the service industry, as housemaids, waitresses and lower-level office staff, have limited opportunities. They are generally obligated to rigid and inflexible contracts, often arranged by third-party agencies. It is slightly easier for professional expat women who work in corporate positions and come primarily from Europe, India and other parts of the Middle East. Many of these women do enjoy higher pay and more possibility for promotion, especially if they work for an international organisation — many of which run regional offices out of Dubai.
But it’s not all smooth. For instance, women who accompany their husbands are given housewife visas, which forbids them from working without a “no objection letter” from their spouse. In practice, this is little more than a formality, but it can be off-putting. Also, even women who get jobs while on a spouse visa can face many restrictions including access to banking and buying property.
Moreover, unlike their national counterparts, expat women are not usually employed in the public sector, where there are laws requiring equal pay structures and treatment, as well as workplace nurseries. There is no specific gender legislation for the private sector that prevents an employer treating a female staff member differently, according to employment lawyer Sara Khoja, a partner at the Dubai office of Clyde and Co.
Despite the rosy picture painted by some happily employed UAE nationals, challenges that exist for working women everywhere remain, from glass ceilings and boardroom bias, to unequal pay and limited maternity leave.
Salam Saadeh, who is not married and who moved to Dubai from Lebanon in 2000 to work in banking and capital markets, said the region’s very male-dominated corporate culture has made her path anything but easy.
A former managing director of the investment banking division of SHUAA Capital, a Middle Eastern financial services firm, Saadeh now runs her own venture capital firm, activem.
“There are not as many women as men in banking and finance globally, but I would say there are even fewer in the Middle East,” she said. “There are stereotypes about women in business here, that they are not as efficient or knowledgeable… As a woman you do have to work twice as hard to prove yourself.”
Saadeh, 42, said that while she sees many women working in entry and mid-level positions in the UAE, very few make it to a senior level outside of those employed at government agencies or local family businesses.
Until recently, men had traditionally been responsible for earning money and supporting the family and there was less financial motivation for Emirati women to work, said Aysha Almazrouei, an Emirati journalist with Abu Dhabi broadsheet daily The National.
“This is changing as more women value independence and self-reliance and choose to delay marriage to continue their education and establish their careers,” Almazrouei, 25, said. “Men have also become more accepting to the idea.”
Another obstacle still facing women in the UAE, whether expat or national, is the fairly unflexible maternity leave. For all UAE employees, the basic legal maternity allowance is only 45 days (equivalent to six weeks). After that only some firms allow extended unpaid leave.
What’s more, said Khoja, “there is also very little part-time work available, partly because the law does not make it very easy for employers” to create such positions.
Recruitment consultant Matthew Gribble, senior managing director for Middle East and Africa at Page Group, agreed part-time work was “underutilised” in the UAE and said it was “a missed opportunity for businesses in retaining and attracting talent.”
Some change is afoot, however. Gribble said Page Group offered up to 12 months maternity leave — matching its UK policy — and part –time roles for parents seeking flexibility. He added other firms were becoming more generous in this regard.
The UAE office of global media agency MediaCom, for example, offers its new mothers full pay for the first 10 weeks of leave and half pay for the next six weeks with an option for eight additional weeks unpaid. It has also introduced seven days paid paternity leave, compared with the statutory three.
It’s not just a nicety, said Bre Hill, regional HR manager for MediaCom. The company wants to keep its female employees.
“Females and males often bring different qualities to a job and a combination of both is always desirable,” she said. “The office should reflect the society we live in where both sexes are balanced, broadly speaking.”
Change is coming
The Emirate of Sharjah, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE, has also increased its maternity allowance, for nationals and expatriates, to 60 days, and the Dubai International Financial Centre, a ‘free zone’ where a number of multi-national companies are based, gives its female staff 65 working days off for maternity leave, 33 fully paid, and 32 on half pay.
“Dubai is a very welcoming place, it opens a lot of doors, it’s very cosmopolitan and there are a lot of economic opportunities here,” Saadeh said. “But you have to work very hard here. Sometimes women themselves don’t want to climb the ladder because the higher you go, it means giving up aspects of family and work-life balance and not everybody wants to do that.”
Almazrouei, the journalist, said empowerment programmes aimed at women have done a lot, but enticing women into the workplace would require even more effort, echoing the plight of women across the globe.
“More part-time job opportunities are needed, women should be entitled to have a longer maternity leave and more flexibility in work hours is also needed to help women balance between work and family,” she said.