SDGs BLOG SERIES – Female Leadership in the MENA region

Author: Ajibola Mujidat Oladejo

This article was first published on Medium

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a region dominated by the Arab culture has a low rate of female (citizens) participation in the labour force. Only about 36% of women in the Middle East work outside the home, compared with about 75% of women in countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Women from Middle Eastern countries remain a minority in the workforce, especially in the private sector — in Saudi Arabia, for example, Saudi women accounted for less than 1% of the private-sector workforce in 2009. (They were better represented within the government, where they made up 30% of employees in 2008.) Women from Qatar made up 2.6% of that country’s workforce, public and private, in 2008. On a 2010 World Economic Forum index of gender equality in 134 countries, the six countries of the Middle East were all ranked below 100, ranging from 103 (UAE) to 129 (Saudi Arabia).

Some of the barriers preventing full participation of women in the labor force include employer’s gender preferences , gender-pay gap between men and women and laws that restrict women’s freedom to work. As entrepreneurs in the region, laws against women’s travelling and credit facilities limit women’s entrepreneurship.

The patriarchal nature of the Arab culture also places a huge responsibility of care work on women. This combined with lack of adequate childcare facilities negatively impacts the women’s labour force participation rate. There is also a social construct making women inferior to men and as such does not encourage women taking on leadership positions.

Social institutions unrelated to business legislation also affect the low participation rate of women in MENA’s labor force. For instance, although women are entitled to economic rights under the Islamic Shari’a, other legislation reinforce gender roles, which lead to “overprotective laws or gendered legal interpretations,” according to a 2007 World Bank report. For instance, the labor codes of Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iran bar women from working during evening or night hours. In countries like Saudi Arabia, women face restrictions in their mobility, a necessity for running a business.

Despite these challenges limiting women’s participation and leadership, there is a long tradition of successful women leaders in the Arab world which can be traced back as far as the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him), Khadijah. Khadijah, who inherited a vast amount of wealth, successfully managed her father’s business interests and preserved the family’s fortune. She was a wise decision-maker with exceptional business acumen and over time became a very successful businesswoman.

Women who achieve success in a traditionally male-dominated culture eshibit some common qualities; a refusal to accept the norm, constant improvement, willingness to go outside their comfort zones both professionally and personally, and taking on new challenges; confidence in their abilities, uniqueness and authenticity, self investment in education and professional networks, mentorship and persistence.  Irrespective of their backgrounds and career paths these are the existing commonalities.  


Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, Minister of tolerance of the UAE. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).

The narrative is changing as more and more women in MENA are being encouraged to take on leadership positions. One of such women breaking the glass ceiling is Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, Minister of tolerance of the UAE. Before she assumed this position, she had been Minister of Economy, Minister of Foreign Trade and Minister of International Cooperation and Development in the UAE’s federal government.

Listed as the most powerful Arab woman in by 2016 CEO Middle East and by Forbes in 2016 as the 43rd most powerful woman in the world, Sheika Lubna is the first woman to hold a ministerial post in the United Arab Emirates. Speaking on her challenges working as an engineer in a male-dominated maritime industry before her foray into politics, “I was the first senior woman coming on board, and it was a tough challenge,” she says. “I would have to explain to executives how I was going to deliver, and there was always a question: ‘How much can I rely on you?’”

“For women to be accepted, they must be trusted, and they have to be overachievers,” she says. “The bottom line is whether you can deliver dollars — or dirhams. You have to prove that it doesn’t matter, gender-wise, who sits there.”

For MENA countries to advance in the 21st century and beyond, they must provide an enabling environment for females to contribute their energy, knowledge, and skills to the labour force. women need to work in an environment devoid of legal, social, and cultural constraints. Encouraging Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), flexible working hours, shared care-work by both men and women, mentoring and pursuing educational paths that lead to employment are critical steps to be taken to increase the female labour force participation rate and consequently, leadership in the Middle East and North Africa.

As MENA women gain the legal, social, and cultural support they deserve, the gender-gap in MENA leadership will close and the region will be better for it.


Global Thinkers Forum  Women leaders in MENA,  

The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East by DeAnne AguirreMelissa Master Cavanaugh, and Karim Sabbagh

Revealed: The 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2016–100-most-powerful-arab-women-2016-624286.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *