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Closing the MENA gender gap could take 115 years

Women are struggling to get into leadership roles since the pandemic struck Creative Commons
Women are struggling to get into leadership roles since the pandemic struck

It will take 115 years to close the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa according to the latest World Economic Forum report.

The analysis, which benchmarks the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes, reveals that women’s employment has suffered as the world’s economy enters its third year of Covid-related disruption.

Of the 146 economies surveyed, just one in five has managed to close the gap by at least one percent in the past year. As a result, while gains have been made, they have reduced the time it will take to reach gender parity by only four years. 

This progress does little to offset the setback of an entire generation recorded in 2020-2021 at the start of the pandemic, said Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum.

Regionally, with an average population-weighted score of 63.4 percent, the MENA region has the second-largest gender gap to close after South Asia. 

MENA’s gender score remains similar to the last edition, which gives it a timeframe to close the gap of 115 years. 

Israel, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon are the best-performing countries while Qatar, Oman and Algeria are the worst-performing countries.

This year’s most improved countries in the region, compared to 2021, are Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Kuwait.

In the UAE, the Gender Balance Council Strategy 2026 aims to further reduce the gender gap across all sectors and achieve gender balance in decision-making positions.

The report coincided with new data from LinkedIn which showed an increase in UAE-based women setting up businesses during the pandemic but also revealed that women in the UAE hold only a fifth of leadership positions. 

Men are 22 percent more likely to receive internal promotions to leadership roles than women, said Sue Duke, head of global public policy at LinkedIn.

“The pandemic hit working women harder than men, as traditional gender roles took hold and female-dominated sectors bore the brunt of lockdowns,” Duke said.

“The serious lack of women in leadership positions continues to be a real problem, and data shows that male colleagues are far more likely to be promoted into leadership roles.” 

PwC research last month claimed as much as $2 trillion could be added to MENA economies by realising women’s potential in the regional workforce.

Increasing the share of women in work in MENA to match the male employment rate could increase the GDP by 57 percent, PwC analysts said.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

The World Economic Forum report shows there has been a marked improvement on the economic participation and opportunity subindex, which raised the level of progress in closing the gender gap from 44 percent to 46 percent in 2022. 

In the same index, Israel, Kuwait and Jordan lead the regional rankings while Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt rank at the bottom. 

There was also broad improvement across key economic indicators, except for labour-force participation rate. 

Six countries, led by Kuwait, Oman and UAE, increased their share of women in technical roles but only Oman increased the share of women in senior roles. 

Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia had a positive increase in the gender gap scores for labour-force participation between last year and 2022 while most countries in the region saw a decline. 

Over half of the 13 countries in the region improved their subindex scores with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco registering the most progress, while six countries saw a decline, with the most negative variation in Bahrain and Egypt.

On educational attainment, MENA countries achieved an average 96.2 percent of gender parity.

Israel was named the best-performing country in the region with full parity while Oman, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are the only countries in the region that have closed less than 95 percent of the gender gap on this index. 

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar have closed their gender gaps in primary education. While Jordan’s primary enrolment gender gap is at 98 percent, the share of enrolment for both girls and boys is considerably lower than in other countries. 

In secondary education, Algeria, UAE, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia have all achieved parity – although the overall share of enrolment in Jordan and Lebanon is considerably lower than in other countries.

All countries in the region have closed their gender gaps in tertiary education but in four countries the shares of enrolment for women are below 50 percent for this level of education.

MENA has also closed 96.4 percent of its gender gap for health and survival.

Flyer, Brochure, Paper

Of all countries in the region, only Qatar has more than five percent of the gender gap to close. Lebanon, Tunisia and Kuwait are the best-performing countries, with 96 percent or more of the gender gap closed. 

However, the region is behind the curve on closing the gender gap in healthy life expectancy. Here, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan and Qatar are among the weakest performers globally.

Across the political empowerment subindex, the region has closed 15.2 percent of its gender gap, which represents a slight decrease from last year of one percent.

This places MENA as the third-lowest regional score on this subindex, ahead of only East Asia and the Pacific and Central Asia. 

The region’s highest subindex score is that of the UAE, at 0.402 while the lowest is Kuwait at 0.023.

Only the UAE has achieved parity at the parliamentary level, while Saudi Arabia remains at zero percent. Lebanon has the highest level of parity for ministerial positions, with the share of women at that level amounting to 32 percent of seats. Saudi Arabia has the lowest, at zero percent. 

Last year Tunisia named its first woman as head of government, becoming the second economy in the region, alongside Israel, to have a female head of state in the past 50 years.

North America leads all regions, having closed 76.9 percent of its gender gap.

“The cost of living crisis is impacting women disproportionately after the shock of labour market losses during the pandemic and the continued inadequacy of care infrastructure,” Zahidi said.

“In face of a weak recovery, government and business must make two sets of efforts: targeted policies to support women’s return to the workforce and women’s talent development in the industries of the future.

“Otherwise, we risk eroding the gains of the last decades permanently and losing out on the future economic returns of diversity.”

She added that closing gender gaps remains a critical driver of national prosperity, explaining that countries that invest in all of their human capital and make it easier for their populations to balance work and family life tend to be more prosperous.

In a column written for AGBI, Norma Taki, inclusion and diversity leader at PwC Middle East, said: “There’s still work to be done by employers and governments to expand on the progress already made when it comes to women and work across the region.”

Research found a significant gap between the hopes and aspirations of women in the region when it comes to what they want in an employer and what employers actually deliver. 

Ninety-four percent of respondents to the MENA Women in Work Survey 2022 said they highly valued a good work-life balance as well as training and development. In reality, the women surveyed said just 62 percent of employers provided both. 

Could do better: Gulf countries at a glance

UAE ranked 68th out of 146

Best – Political empowerment (30th)

Worst – Economic participation and opportunity (132nd)

Saudi Arabia 127th

Best – Educational attainment (93rd)

Worst – Economic participation and opportunity (128th)

Kuwait 130th

Best – Educational attainment (47th)

Worst – Political empowerment (145th)

Bahrain 131st

Best – Educational attainment (54th) 

Worst – Political empowerment (137th)

Qatar 137th

Best – Educational attainment (83rd) 

Worst – Political empowerment (143rd)

Oman 139th

Best – Educational attainment (113th)

Worst – Political empowerment (140th)

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