Public sector still employer of choice for Emirati women

Author: Heba Hashem | Date: 03 Nov 2015

With women making up two-thirds of government workers, what can the private sector do to win them back?

It’s no secret that UAE nationals, both females and males, tend to prefer employment with the government. But new research from Dubai Women Establishment (DWE) reports that Emirati women currently hold 66 per cent of all public sector jobs, up from just 11.7 per cent in 1975 – a six-fold increase in 40 years.
 
With women accounting for 71 per cent of Emirati graduates, why are so many flocking to the public sector rather than the private sector? And is it too late for business to do anything about it?
 
Rapid improvement in flexible working and maternity arrangements is just one reason for women’s preference for the public sector.
 
Lieutenant Colonel Dr Iman Al Jaberi, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi Police College and the first Emirati female investigator, said the situation used to be very different. “When I was pregnant with each of my three children, I still had to go to work and fulfil my commitments. It was very difficult.”
 
Now a licensed lawyer and legal consultant, Dr Al Jaberi said UAE law didn’t used to allow for long periods of maternity leave, although officials used to make allowances on a case-by-case basis.
 
“The situation is much better today, thanks to reforms introduced by the minister of interior, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan,” she said. “He has always been compassionate with working mothers. A pregnant woman can now get sufficient holiday leave.” That’s good news for the 1,500 female members of the Dubai Police – 93 of whom hold top leadership positions.
 
Such flexible arrangements for working mothers, along with shorter working hours and larger salaries, are just a few reasons why Emirati women are heading to the public sector. But, said Maha Al Mansouri, director of Emiratisation and human capital at renewable energy company Masdar, there’s more to it than that.
 
“The mindset has changed since the nineties; the number of families accepting that their daughters go out and work has dramatically increased,” said Al Mansouri. “Back then, the question was: ‘Why is your daughter working?’ Today, it’s: ‘Why is she not working?’ The UAE’s millennial generation is also well educated. Many attend private universities or study abroad.”
 
Data published by the Statistics Centre of Abu Dhabi to mark the first-ever Emirati Women’s Day earlier this year showed that enrolment of female citizens in higher education increased by 7.1 per cent between 2008 and 2013.
 
The report also found that 80 per cent of female citizens in the labour market in 2014 worked for the government – nearly 15 per cent more than DWE’s estimates. A further 12.4 per cent of women reportedly work in the semi-government sector, and just 5.2 per cent in the private sector.
 
“UAE nationals, in general, will not be attracted to a job unless there are incentives: emotional motivators are even more important than monetary ones,” said Al Mansouri. “I think [more people will be attracted to the private sector] when they see the government supporting private companies, because people trust the government.”
 
Al Mansouri believes that Emiratis feel a greater sense of security working for the government, and feel assured that they won’t face any problems with their contracts or rights. There’s also a huge gap in salaries. “A person might join a private company for a couple of years, just for the experience, but then move to the public sector because they have family responsibilities and a lifestyle to maintain,” she said.
 
The private sector also falls short in its prioritisation of employee training and development. “In the government, they pay attention to and invest in Emiratisation and development, because they care about those things,” said Al Mansouri. “But in the private sector, it’s usually the dollar sign that matters.
 
It’s time for private companies to up their game and work harder to recruit and retain nationals, and women in particular, she said. “The country needs UAE nationals everywhere: private and public sector, family owned businesses, in skills-based jobs and setting up their own organisations as entrepreneurs.”