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As the Head of the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA) in the Middle East, I’ve been overseeing the expansion of our Women in Finance initiative into Saudi Arabia and Oman, and with it, I am seeing that the conversation about the experiences of women in the Middle East’s workforce is flourishing. I passionately believe that it is everyone’s responsibility –and not just the work of campaigning women– to close gender gaps when it comes to education, salary, and career prospects. That’s how meaningful progress can be achieved- our society can only reap great benefits by supporting women at every stage of their career.
As a leader who happens to be a woman and a mother, I’ve seen many positive strides towards closing the gender gap when it comes to men and women in the workplace. We see more women in management roles, and the global gender pay gap is slowly getting smaller. However, it isn’t something I take for granted. As someone who has experienced the very real challenge of giving birth and returning to full-time work very quickly after, I know from first-hand experience that we need to do much more to support women at this most pivotal and significant life milestone.
In February last year, the UAE labor law increased paid maternity leave to 60 days, with 45 days on full-pay, and an additional 15 days at half-pay. It’s absolutely a step in the right direction. I think all of us instinctively understand that increasing support for women who have babies can only serve to ensure that the rich talent pool represented by the female population doesn’t dwindle during its childbearing years. I think we all instinctively also understand that 60 days of leave isn’t sufficient time for a woman to get back to full time work after birth.
Now, when it comes to “mat leave” in the UAE, we sadly lag behind much of the world in this regard- Iceland offers both mothers and fathers four months of parental leave, Romania allows its working mothers to take 100 weeks off with an average of 85% salary covered. Estonia, Albania, Croatia, the UK, and Montenegro are amongst the countries that offer over 50 weeks of maternity leave. Conversely, the USA offers absolutely none by law– a surprising statistic from a global superpower. That said, the truth is that there are many challenges for women when it comes to navigating maternity leave in the UAE.
Many women are torn between fulfilling their role as a mother and returning to the workplace earlier than they would like. There is a misconception that if a woman does not want to return to work after just 45 days, she doesn’t want to return at all, or she don’t value her job. This resonates with my own experience, and it is an issue that I feel very passionately about. It plays a huge factor for many women who feel they have no option but to quit careers to raise families. Many women, quite understandably, do not feel ready to return to work after such a short amount of time. It leaves little time to bond, heal from childbirth, and develop healthy patterns for both the mother and the child. Women should not have to make the choice between being a mother and having a career. We should have an environment where it is encouraged to do both.
For women who run their own businesses, of course, the challenges are greater, because the reality for many entrepreneurs is that they simply don’t get days off! My own experience of maternity leave in the UK was similar to that in the UAE. I was running my accountancy practice, and I took just 40 days maternity leave. I felt I had no option but to return to work with an air of capability and calm, when I felt anything but. I was under huge pressure to attend to my clients, even with a newborn in my arms.
That said, although the UAE’s maternity leave lags behind other countries, breastfeeding is encouraged and protected by law, something I think is worth celebrating. A female worker is entitled, according to UAE law “to one or two additional breaks each day for nursing her child. The duration of the two breaks must not exceed one hour. The woman is entitled to such breaks for six months following the date of delivery. Such breaks are fully paid for.” Such efforts show that our government has supported progress in the right direction, and private companies also need to help remove the stigma around taking time off to raise a family. It doesn’t mean a woman values her job less, or performs less. I also think we need to encourage and recognize the important role of fathers in all of this. New dads in the UAE receive just three paid days of paternity leave- one of the lowest anywhere in the world.
We have come to adopt many international best practices when it comes to doing business. As such, I believe that it’s worth looking closely at countries with longer maternity leave, and asking ourselves the question: “Are these societies at a disadvantage, because of longer maternity and paternity leave?”
I think the opposite is true.
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