On women, by woman

Nadereh Chamlou of World Bank talks to Anita Joseph about the glass ceiling women in the region face at work and patterns in women owned businesses and enterprises

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Let's face it, women in this region face a thicker glass ceiling at work than women elsewhere," says Nadereh Chamlou, senior advisor, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, World Bank.

She points out that female demographics and employment trends in the Middle East show certain unique characteristics that distinguish it from any other region. It is universally acknowledged that diversity in perspective and demographics is the key to success in any organisation.

But female labour force participation in the MENA region is only 32 per cent, the lowest among all regions with similar demographics, points out Chamlou, who was in Muscat recently to speak at the Women in Business conference.

Interestingly, statistics show that the highest unemployment rate is among the highly educated women. The glass ceiling in MENA firms and enterprises owned by males is very thick and the scales are heavily tilted against women. "All this, despite the fact that in as many as 11 out of 18 MENA countries, women outnumber men in universities. Test and exam scores also favour women."

She says private sector companies will need to be more inclusive of women. Male-owned firms in MENA have the lowest share of women in management roles. Female owned firms in MENA hire fewer women on an average compared to other regions - but compensate by hiring more women professionals, particularly women managers. "Promoting women into leadership positions can also help groom them to assume prominent public roles."

Chamlou says the corporate world has to realise that women bring a lot of advantages to the workplace. Being less of risk takers than men, women are a big asset to organisations, especially in these tough economic times. Women are also more sensitive to the public pulse, more used to functioning on shoestring budgets and more loyal to the companies that they work for. Studies also show that women anticipate corruption more effectively than their male counterparts and work towards eradicating the menace.

Again, the GCC countries are growing very fast and have a major shortage of skills. Women on the other hand, are becoming more and more educated and highly skilled. "There is a lot of opportunity for women, but the problem is that their skills and talents go wasted in most cases."

Chamlou says women empowerment in the real sense has not arrived in the GCC. As far as knowledge acquisition and skills are concerned, women here have made tremendous strides but economic empowerment, which is the key, has not yet happened. This is what women in the MENA region lack and this is something that needs to be addressed, stresses Chamlou.

The first step to economic empowerment of women and the evolution of an equal society is public awareness of the potential and talent that women possess and the contributions they can make to the corporate world. A change in both male and female mindsets is necessary to bring about this change.

"Men have to understand and recognise the fact that women are increasingly making a mark in public life and have a lot of potential that can be used to revolutionise society, while women have to stop thinking in the marriage-childbearing-rearing mode. They have to realise that unless they have the courage to step out of manmade barriers, they will continue to be discriminated against."

While Chamlou agrees that most governments in the MENA region have tried very hard to present more opportunities to women and bring them at par with men, she points out that social attitudes don't change all that easily.

"The bias towards women have changed in areas where the government has worked on, but there are others outside their initiatives concerning women that needs to be improved and worked upon, like access to finance, to give an example. Unless this happens, nothing significant can be done.""

On women, by woman
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