Dubai School of Government
Women and Leadership Development: Perspectives, Policies and Pedagogies
In September 2007, the Dubai School of Government hosted a series of workshops
addressing the issue of women’s leadership development in the United Arab
Emirates, focusing on educational and training methodologies and relevant
workplace policies. These workshops also served as a forum for establishing a
network of potential collaborators and interested partners for future research
The workshops hosted women from several fields, namely, senior government
officials, recent graduates engaged in full-time salaried work, university
representatives and human resource managers from both the government and
The following executive summary outlines several emergent themes from the
ensuing workshop discussions and is divided into four sections: education, work,
leadership and policies. Each section is followed by policy recommendations.
Data presented in this document has been compiled from workshop discussions and
surveys completed by attending participants. These results were both of a
qualitative and quantitative nature, providing us with concrete views of women’s
experiences of education, work and training in UAE society.
The workshop participants included a group of highly-qualified working women in the
UAE, whose views are crucial in understanding the gendered nature of the educational
system, as well as gaining insight into policies, cultural constraints and challenges that
women encounter in the workplace. Thus, workshop discussions and surveys filled out
by the participants provided us with some privileged insight into the views held regarding
women’s leadership development in the United Arab Emirates.
Despite the small size of the sample (23 participants) it includes women of diverse age
groups1, education levels, occupations and careers. All the participants attending the
workshops hold university degrees.2 Half of the participants hold middle management
positions, while twenty percent are in top management.
Most of these participants are involved in the business and education sectors. Fifty
percent of our sample has between five to fifteen years of experience in their respective
fields.3 Just under half of the participants are married and have children, and the majority
of their husbands hold university degrees and work in the private sector.
2.1 Educational system:
There was a strong consensus among participants on the need to modify the prevailing
curricula in the UAE, especially at the high school and university level. Government
curricula are not challenging enough to students, resulting in the underdevelopment of
Rigidity within the educational system was another concern expressed among all groups.
For example, at the university level, students that have family commitments are not given
the flexibility to pursue their education outside the university itself. Further concerns
revolved around the notion of students being “spoon-fed”, “brain-washed” and treated like
In addition, current methods of teaching do not facilitate or develop leadership skills in
students, where pedagogy follows traditional rote methods, and most teachers assume
authority without allowing students to freely express their own opinions.
Even though leadership programs are not offered by any schools in the UAE, private
schools do offer extra-curricular and team-building activities, as well as allowing students
Their ages range between 20-49 years of age.
Over half of the participants hold Masters Degrees, while a few hold PhD’s.
Some participants have less than five years of experience and a few have more than thirty years of
to have male/female interaction. These exercises pave the way for the development of
basic leadership qualities. Government schools, on the other hand, are strictly segregated
and do not offer additional activities of any kind.
Regarding university degrees, there is a tendency in the job market to favour UAE
nationals who have obtained foreign degrees regardless of their degree of choice. There
also seems to be an absence of PhD programs offered in the country, which is a serious
concern among those who want to continue their further education within the UAE.
The educational system in the UAE, being in its early development stages, suffers from a
great deal of “trial and error” with regard to pedagogies and educational methodologies.
These sentiments were pronounced by both employers and senior professionals attending
the workshops, who stated that these trial and error procedures adversely affect the
development of students’ learning and leadership capabilities.
2.2 Career counselling:
Another significant issue raised was the absence of sound, market-oriented career
counselling for students, whether at the high school or university level. This makes the
transition from high school to university, and from university to work all the more
difficult for students to cope with. The absence of counselling results in degrees being
selected under the influence of peers and/or parents (choices tend to steer towards business
and IT). This reduces students’ decision making capabilities in selecting their future career
All government and some private schools in the UAE are segregated at the secondary level
and onwards. Once students enter the workforce, however, interaction with the opposite
sex becomes a must and many employees find this challenging. The need for gender
interaction prior to joining the workforce is a necessity for young women in the UAE, as
their social networking capabilities depend on access.
2.4 The internship experience:
Many UAE universities provide internship opportunities for their students in the job
market. If internships in their respective fields are not offered, some universities offer job
opportunities at the school itself.
With the exception of one or two examples, participants felt that job placements and
internship programs leave much to be desired. Often, interns are not provided with
structured programs or challenging work. Many participants felt that employers need to
view these job placements as a means of sustainable employment by investing in their
interns as future employees.
- Integration of male and female students of segregated schools by offering opportunities
for “mixed” extracurricular activities, workshops, forums, international conferences
and job placements at the university level, whilst taking into account cultural
sensitivities and norms. These opportunities can create a smoother transition into the
- Revising the current curricula to evoke more critical thinking, promote leadership
qualities and to further challenge students by stimulating their intellectual abilities.
- Modifying the pedagogy to alter the ‘top-down’ approach so commonly used within
schools and universities in the UAE, and to create a more challenging atmosphere of
debate and freedom of thought, with an emphasis on building decision-making skills as
well as entrusting students with more responsibility.
- Emphasis on career counselling as an important tool for recognizing students’
strengths and capabilities for selecting the appropriate educational and career path.
Young graduates also need to be well acquainted with market demands as the market is
ripe to hire UAE nationals.
- Since the UAE is a young country, it needs to invest in critical areas and careers for the
benefit of the economy. Gaps in particular sectors need to be identified by career
counsellors in order to encourage students to attain qualifications relevant to the job
3.1 Transition to the workplace:
There was a general consensus during the workshops that the transition from
university to workplace is a challenging one for young graduates in the UAE. This
was due to several factors, including minimal exposure to mixed-gender environments
and the underdevelopment of applied practical knowledge. While some universities do
provide students with practical knowledge and applied skills for the workplace, most
universities focus mainly on theory.
Another transitional difficulty was the lack of access to career counselling at the
university level (as mentioned previously). In addition, there is minimal presence of
both mentoring and guidance for students from the institution itself, whether at the
personal or the academic level.
Regarding career fairs, many participants agreed that they do not seem to serve their
purpose. From an employer’s perspective, career fairs show that many fresh graduates
in the UAE have unrealistic expectations about the job market (e.g. high
salary/position expectations). On the other hand, many university representatives at
the workshop suggested that career fairs have the potential to be a good platform for
fresh graduates to network and gain a clear perspective of the job market.
3.2 Jobs and careers:
Many young graduates in the UAE prefer to work in the business sector (namely
human resources) or have a preference for venturing into the field of entrepreneurship
and/or working for the family business. Young Emirati graduates also prefer working
for the government rather than the private sector as it offers higher salaries and shorter
working hours. This could result in the unrealistic expectations UAE nationals have
for themselves when entering the job market.
Another inherent problem is the lack of knowledge regarding the job market, thus
resulting in the often quoted “mismatch” between the outputs of the educational
system and the demands of the market. For example, there has been a growing supply
of students selecting ‘e-commerce’ as a specialization, assuming that it is a strong
market demand. Thus, the e-commerce job market has become saturated.
Many young graduates do not see their jobs as ‘career choices’ but simply as work.
They have not been made aware of the possibilities of choosing a career path.
Opportunities are available; however, there is minimal focus on actual career
3.3 Nationalization in the workplace:
The current Emiratization schemes running in the UAE seem to be counter-
productive to the development of UAE nationals. Quota systems normally result in
the emergence of stereotypes. This has been the case in the UAE, where there has
been a broad categorization of young Emiratis as being “unproductive” or “lazy”.
Even though some multinational firms do end up hiring UAE nationals, their role and
function in the organization is minimal and tends to be administrative (with
exceptions). This skill underutilization leads to frustration among young professional
Emiratis, resulting in high turnover.
HR representatives attending the workshops felt that despite the Emiratization
process, it is not only sufficient have an “Emirati” CV to be successful. In order to
survive in a competing market, one needs to have the appropriate qualifications.
Therefore, training courses (whether leadership or management), could compensate for
the lack of development of market-relevant skills for Emiratis to compete on an equal
footing with expatriates working in the UAE.
3.4 Cultural constraints:
Many women are excluded from the decision making process by virtue of being a
woman (for example, from majlis gatherings where most important decisions are
made). This limits their network building capacities and reduces their ability to
critically influence the decision making process in the workplace.
Travelling seems to be another constraint. Many young women are not allowed to
travel abroad for work unless accompanied by a family member. Thus, by default,
organizations become biased against allocating foreign assignments to young Emirati
women, disadvantaging them from gaining a competitive edge and limiting
opportunities for their promotion. This phenomenon is much more prevalent in the
government sector. Moreover, a number of cultural constraints are reinforced by
personal status laws that discriminate against women.
It was clear based on the responses of our survey, that an overwhelming majority of
participants hold liberal views on women’s roles and strongly endorse equality
between women and men.
Eighty percent of the participants agreed that men should share the housework with
women and ninety percent of the participants believe that women should have the
same opportunities as men. In addition, eighty percent feel that a working woman can
establish a warm and secure relationship with her children just as a mother who does
not work, while all the participants unanimously endorsed the view that a woman
should be able to freely choose her future husband. However, when having to make a
choice between marriage and a job, half the respondents would choose the former. 4
This suggests that despite the endorsement of “liberal” views on most items in the
survey, almost half of the respondents hold traditional views when it comes to work-
family balance issues.
3.5 Flexi-hours and part-time work opportunities:
Flexi-hours and part-time job opportunities need to be formally introduced into the
workplace in the UAE, as they are keys to empowering women, especially those with
Many women temporarily leave the workforce after having children and are not given
flexible working options (for example, being able to work part-time or to work from
Reference: Almohsen, M. An exploratory study of the views of modernization of educated Saudi Women. University
of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2000). These items were adapted from the Almohsen study where items were validated
in samples of Saudi female students. The content of the items included housework, employment, equal
opportunity, balancing home and work life and selection of mate. The ‘agree’ category indicates modern (or liberal)
attitudes towards the role of women, while the ‘disagree’ category indicates traditional (conservative) ones. The vast
majority chose the “modern” response for almost all items. See appendix I for responses to survey questions
regarding women’s attitudes towards their roles.
home) and find it challenging to re-enter the workforce. This results in a “tipping
point” at which many women permanently exit the job market.
- Career services and alumni offices should track the career development of their
former students in order for counsellors to be more aware of the job market.
- Young graduates, especially women, should be exposed to international
environments such as attending conferences and training courses outside the UAE
in order to expand the scope of their professional communication, learning and
- The introduction of flexi-hours and part-time job opportunities as a necessary tool
for retaining a large percentage of the female work-force.
4. Leadership and Development
4.1 Core competencies for leadership:
Many young women in the UAE need to work on developing their core leadership
skills, as well as learning how to promote their achievements. Young women in the
UAE are regularly seen as less “challenging and assertive” than their male counterparts.
Such gendered perspectives could work to disadvantage women if they are to compete
on the same professional footing as men.
In addition, there seems to be a lack of ‘role models’ available to young Emirati
women. In order to build leadership capacities, role models are essential for teaching
young professionals how to become effective change agents and how to accommodate
handling multiple roles at once by setting an example.
4.2 Networking and segregation:
There was a strong consensus that “mixed” environments are necessary for young
graduates to develop their networking skills. As most young Emirati women (and
men) come from segregated environments (either at school or within the community),
interaction in the workplace becomes a challenge. Thus, leadership programs dedicated
solely to women might actually hinder their leadership capacities when later placed in
a mixed environment. Placing men and women in the same classroom sends the right
message that women are as capable as men when it comes to leadership and decision
Segregation, if any, should be made between levels of seniority (i.e. between senior and
junior professionals). Fresh graduates and young professionals need to develop core
problem-solving, communication and decision-making skills which senior
professionals already possess. However, senior professionals attending the workshops
emphasized their own need for further developing skills such as strategic planning and
Regarding networking opportunities, it still needs to be seen whether alternative spaces
can be provided for including women in the decision making process (such as
alternatives to the majlis).
4.3 Practicality of leadership courses:
There was a positive response to some existing leadership development programs at the
Dubai School of Government, in which a number of workshop participants were
enrolled in. Other participants expressed interest in executive education programs as
part of their continuous career development and personal growth.
Some participants suggested the need to have ‘impact assessments’ of these leadership
programs in order to evaluate whether skills learned in these programs are actually
being implemented in the workplace. Many see these leadership development courses
as beneficial merely for networking purposes.
Participants also suggested that leadership programs are better accepted by
organizations if labelled ‘management’ programs, as organizations feel that the concept
of ‘management’ is more conducive and effective to the work experience than
- Young women in the UAE need to develop their leadership skills and work on
strengthening traits such as assertiveness and persuasiveness, in order to build an
image of competence and confidence in the workplace.
- Leadership courses can be useful for reintegrating women who have left the
workforce by boosting their confidence. These courses can also help them transfer
smoothly back into workplace.
- There is a need to conduct impact assessments (before and after the program) to
ensure that quality and practicality of implementation of the training has occurred.
- Another important factor is to have employers’ “buy-in” to these leadership and
management courses, in order to give employees room to implement their newly
5.1 Rights and resources:
Over two-thirds of participants who attended the workshop confirmed that their
organizations have ‘equal pay’ policies between men and women in the workplace.
However, only a little over a half of the participants had ‘formal equal opportunity’
policies at their workplace. 5
Regarding policies against sexual harassment in the workplace, only a third of the
participants (mainly in the private sector) stated that formal policies protecting them
from sexual harassment existed. Even though some organizations do have these
policies, they are rarely implemented.
5.2 Maternity leave and day care facilities:
Maternity leave in the UAE, as officially stated by the labour law, is forty-five days
paid leave. However, the new HR law, which is only applicable to the government
sector, stipulates a sixty day paid leave. Forty-two percent of the participants
confirmed only having the forty-five days leave, while twenty-six percent reported
having the full sixty days. One example, which came from a private sector company,
indicated that female employees requiring maternity leave could receive up to eighty
days paid leave.
In addition, there seems to be an absence of day care facilities provided by
organizations, whether in the government or the private sector, which was confirmed
by the majority of our participants. Many viewed this lack of child support as a
hindrance to their productivity as employees.
5.3 Government and company policies:
Due to the swift nature of policy change in the UAE, most find it difficult to keep up
with new laws and regulations constantly being implemented. Also, they report that
there is no visible follow-through and assessment of whether these policy changes
work or not. Thus, there is an essential need to communicate changes being made and
to promote the transparency of governmental regulations.
In addition, the new HR law stipulates that there will be no differentiation in salary
between a graduate who holds a Bachelors, a Masters or a PhD degree. Salary
differentiation depends on position only. This stipulation gives leverage to work
experience over education. Many feel that this is a disincentive for those aiming to
continue their further education.
See appendix II for graphs showing responses to the survey questions on policies in the workplace.
Another public sector policy that was addressed during the workshops was the issue of
‘allowances’. If both spouses work within the government sector, only the husband
receives allowances, presuming that they would be shared.
Since many policies supporting women in the workplace are either not clear or not
present, decisions are left up to the discretion of each individual organization.
- Women need to understand the importance of approaching HR in obtaining their
rights as employees.
- There is a need for the government/policy makers to communicate changes and
- There is also a need for standardizing policies supporting women in the workplace
across all sectors.
The workshop discussions generated an atmosphere of interesting debate regarding
work policies and educational pedagogies specifically affecting women in the United
Arab Emirates. The discussions also provided us with useful policy recommendations
and practical insights for generating future research and leadership development
programs at the Dubai School of Government.
Women’s attitudes towards their role
Question: Men should do the same housework as Question: Women should give their jobs priority
over a marriage
20 26% 26%
Disagree Agree Disagree Neutral Agree
Question: A working mother can establish a
Question: A woman should have the same
warm and secure relationship with her children
opportunities as a man
just as a mother who does not work
0 5% 5% 0
Disagree Neutral Agree Disagree Neutral Agree
Policies concerning women in the workplace
Formal equal opportunity policies in the Formal policies in the workplace against sexual
Not aware Not aware
Equal remuneration policies Prevalence of childcare facilities
and/or day-care centres in the workplace
16% False False
Not aware 16%