By Dr. Lamya N. Fawwaz
The historic Paris Agreement and its requirement that all signatory nations work towards keeping climate change below 2°C has ushered the world into a new era. This groundbreaking accord, which is the result of over 20 years of negotiations, clearly acknowledges the threat of climate change, and the impact it has on all segments of society.
Being invited to speak at a panel on Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewability (WiSER) during COP21 made me think of the importance of women’s participation and link to climate change for a sustainable future and the importance of women’s participation to the goals of COP21. Women make up 40% of the global labor force and over half of the world’s university students, but they are still not being utilized to their fullest. This gap, and the policies and prejudices that cause it, are holding back countries from reaching their full-potential in sustainable economic development.
To give women the opportunity to reach their highest potential and allow their communities and economies to leverage them more fully as a resource, I believe there are three things the global community must pursue: increased access to education for women, increased access for women to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and increased involvement of women in decision-making.
Education has proven to be the most effective tool for female empowerment in modern times. Here in the UAE we know this first-hand, as our female education levels have been followed by an increase in women in both the labor force and in political participation. Additionally, education with a focus on STEM has further benefits, with women in STEM jobs estimated to earn as much as 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.
Women’s political and decision-making involvement is the third key component I believe to be critical for improving female empowerment for sustainable economic and social gains. Empowering women as economic, political, and social actors can change policy choices and make institutions more representative of a range of voices. The recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report shows that where the gender gap is smaller in a range of areas — including political participation — countries and economies are more competitive and prosperous. More women in leadership positions is known to increase female workforce participation both by creating role models for female workers and improving rates of recruitment for women. This is why I believe that by leveraging greater female education, female STEM integration and political empowerment, the global push for sustainable economic development and prosperity will receive a tremendous boost.
To get an idea of how countries have benefited by leveraging the potential of women, you need only compare the past and present of countries that have integrated women in their economies. The increase in employment of women during the past decade has added more to global growth than has the economic emergence of China, according to The Economist.
The UAE is leading efforts to capitalize on the strength of its women, in continuation of the vision of our late founding father, UAE President Sheikh Zayed, who believed that women had a significant role to play in the country. In recognition of the importance of policy support for female integration, the UAE leadership has established the Gender Balance Council to boost the country’s efforts to evolve and enhance women’s roles as key partners in building the future of the nation. This move followed a similar measure in 2014, whereby the UAE Cabinet agreed that there should be female members on the boards of directors of all governmental authorities, institutions and companies. The culmination of the UAE’s efforts can be seen in the UAE’s appointment of the first woman to be voted as president of the Federal National Council, representing the first female leader of a national assembly in the region.
These measures place the UAE firmly on the path to sustainable economic development, with UAE national women already representing 60% of the country’s university graduates and 43% of the citizen workforce. These talented and dedicated women will play a key role in the transformation of the country into a knowledge economy where innovative, high-tech industries powered by renewable energy and advanced technologies, fuel a competitive and prosperous economy.
With the UAE leadership’s clear focus and desire to develop and leverage the country’s precious human capital resources for sustainable prosperity, I am confident that the young women who are studying STEM in the UAE today will become tomorrow’s innovative leaders. We hope the UAE’s trailblazing efforts to capitalize on its female resource will inspire other nations to give their girls and women the same opportunities to succeed and contribute as their men, to help not only turn back the tide on global climate change, but also bring greater sustainability and prosperity to all.
Dr. Lamya N. Fawwaz is the Vice President of Public Affairs and Institutional Advancement at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.