Increasing numbers of women are being represented in workforces across GCC countries – but experts warn much more must be done to help them into senior roles and reduce the gender pay gap.

Even the most optimistic predictions suggest a wage gap will be present until at least 2066, according to a new report from management consultancy Accenture, Getting to Equal 2017.

It suggests that digital fluency, career strategy – the need for women to aim high and proactively manage their careers – and tech immersion are three areas of focus that could help equalise the pay of men and women in a shorter space of time.

But pay isn’t the only issue. For many women who are keen to work, there simply aren’t enough suitable opportunities available. Helen McGuire, co-founder and managing director of Hopscotch, which helps women find work in the UAE, says: “We know that the UAE has the one of the most educated female populations in the world and yet thousands of women remain without work because of the historic lack of balanced and flexible options in the workplace.

“Despite a general desire from UAE organisations to hire and retain more women in senior positions, there are currently very few laws or even guidelines that actively support, advise or protect females in the workforce.”

However, this could be about to change. In support of the UAE’s target to become one of the world’s top 25 countries for gender equality by 2021, the region’s Gender Balance Council has announced that it is producing a workplace guide designed to provide advice for organisations on how to adopt a gender-sensitive approach. Set to be published in September, it has been developed in partnership with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Welcoming the news, Sara Khoja, partner at law firm Clyde & Co, acknowledges that many employers in the country are already offering family-friendly entitlements to help women who want to work: “It can sometimes be difficult to establish a direct correlation between enhanced benefits and employee retention. But retaining women during the middle years of their careers – when typically employees start families but also go through important periods of developing skills and experience – can ensure a pipeline of female talent for development and later promotion.”

In Saudi Arabia, a lack of suitable employment opportunities is stifling progress on gender diversity, if recent figures are anything to go by. A new report from the country’s General Authority for Statistics found that 80.6 per cent of the country’s jobseekers are female, suggesting the motivation to work far outweighs the supply of jobs.

The number of Saudi females employed in the private sector increased by 144 per cent between the end of 2012 and the third quarter of 2016 – from 203,088 to 496,800, according to the General Organization for Social Insurance – but only 22 per cent of the country’s workforce is currently female. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 aims to increase this to 30 per cent.

Some progress is being made. General Electric recently hired its first Saudi female engineers, in what has been hailed by campaigners as a landmark move, while the All-Women Business Process and IT Services Center in Riyadh has set a target of getting 3,000 women into employment in the next few years.

“This is not about filling quotas – it’s about having the right people for the right jobs,” says Hisham Al Bahkali, president and CEO of GE Saudi Arabia & Bahrain. “We foresee the number of Saudi females in our workforce increasing over time and we will continue to invest in their training and development to create challenging and rewarding career opportunities – as we do with all GE employees.”

Dr Najat Benchiba-Savenius, head of social and economic research, GCC, at Oxford Strategic Consulting, believes the female workforce can be optimised further. “Focusing on the acute issue of unemployment among Saudi women through mentoring, creating new jobs in the private sector and offering corporate incentives, internships and a nationwide communications and social media campaign could help bolster economic reform plans in the Kingdom,” she says.

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