GULF STATES: Women's studies find a champion

The United Arab Emirates will formally launch a gender and women's studies consortium at an international gathering next March. Its aim is to encourage teaching and research on the subject and promote its integration into the general curriculum.

Meanwhile, a new research report on maximising women's participation in the workforce presents findings of significant consequence for the Gulf states.

The first conference of the UAE Gender and Women's Studies Consortium, sponsored by the American University of Sharjah in UAE and the University of Southern Maine in Portland, US, will take place from 7-9 March 2012.

"Gender and women's studies remains a relatively young field in the Middle East and, although one can find an abundance of scholarly literature on Egypt and a few other Middle Eastern societies, the scarcity of research on the UAE and the Arabian Gulf countries is striking," said Linzi Kemp, assistant professor in the School of Business and Management at the American University of Sharjah, UAE, and a member of the consortium's conference organising committee.

With the exception of Ahfad University for Women in Sudan, Kemp said, no university in the Arab region offered undergraduate degrees in gender and women's studies.

"While North Africa and the Levant are hosts to several centres dedicated to research on women and gender, there is currently not a single comparable institution in the Arabian Gulf countries," Kemp argued in an article titled "Gender and Women's Studies in the Arab Region", which was published in AngloHigher - 'the magazine of global English-speaking higher education'.

According to the American University of Sharjah website, the new inter-institutional consortium, in addition to making use of grants and release-time to encourage universities to conduct teaching and research in gender and women's studies, and advocating for their integration into the wider curriculum, will recommend library acquisitions and build capacity in the UAE.

Still focusing on the UAE, Kemp told University World News: "Education enables entry to the workforce - a fact validated as the total number of females nationally working in all fields had reached 100,000 by 2010."

Kemp pointed out that in 2009, 69% of Emirati university graduates were women.

In addition, 14% of the employed labour force is female, 66% of those women occupy public posts and 30% of those are top decision-making positions. And women make up more than a third of the UAE's banking and financial services workforce.

In a related development, Dubai's Cass Business School has published a research report, Maximizing Women's Participation in the GCC Workforce, which focuses on identifying barriers and solutions for women to work in the six Gulf states (GCC states) of Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.

The report says it found significant numbers of unemployed, highly skilled women in the GCC states. Gender reform has rapidly improved access to higher education, to the extent that 77% and 67% of women achieve university degrees in UAE and Kuwait respectively.

"These highly qualified women are extremely capable and willing to work yet only a minority are actually contributing to the workforce," says the report. While women make up 48% of the states' population, they account for only about 20% of the workforce.

Given what the report sums up as "a combination of factors ranging from cultural and religious sensitivities through to geographic isolation from major employment", it posits 'home-working' initiatives as the answer to involving Gulf state women in national workforces, thus boosting economic and social prosperity.

According to the report, global research suggests that home-working initiatives could increase the effective workforce by at least 12%, allow more than two million additional highly qualified women to enter the workforce and potentially contribute up to 30% (US$363 billion) to the GDP of the Gulf states.

"Home-working programmes are essential to accommodate rising levels of qualified female graduates from GCC universities ready to enter the workforce," Chris Rowley, Director of the Centre for Research in Asian Management at the London-based City University and co-author of the report, told Arab Times.

And Rowley suggested to University World News that national universities in the Gulf states could see themselves more as "human capital builders" and "suppliers of a workforce for business" - rather than as "educators per se in the more liberal sense".

In terms of preparing the workforce for home-working, Rowley suggested "specific introductions, courses and options on home-working in general", to focus on the benefits and skills entailed. At the same time, the possible problems and challenges of home-working, including isolation and the impact on careers, should be presented.

Rowley suggested a mix of "early and detailed career advice", and "tasters" especially in the form of internships and work experience.