Educated and ambitious, Qatari women nudge their way into the office
Qatari women outnumber men 2 to 1 at university, but a lack of work opportunities used to mean that a college degree was the end game. That's changing.
Tahani Al Marri, 23, has her future planned out. The Qatar University senior in communications is determined to work in public relations for the countryâ€™s Olympic committee. And when she marries, she has just one demand: a husband who supports her career.
â€śOf course when I get married I want to keep working,â€ť Ms. Al Marri says. â€śIf he says he wants me to stay at home, Iâ€™ll just show him the door.â€ť
The studious, confident women in Qatar's universities show how much has changed since Qatar's rapid development began in the 1970s. Women have yet to make equivalent gains in the workplace, even as their world has expanded.Â
â€śBefore Qatari women were like a shell, totally closed. We were afraid to speak out and get involved in society, especially dealing with men,â€ť Al Marri explains. â€śBut now the shell is open.â€ť Â Â Â
Women outperform the men at every level of education in Qatar and outnumber them in college classrooms by nearly two to one. High school and university instructors often complain male students seem bored and unmotivated.
Still, Qatar remains a patriarchal society in which boys grow up knowing that theyÂ will inherit family businesses or easily find high-paying government or military jobs that may not require a degree. Men have more social freedom than women, which helps explain their low university enrollment rates, says Moza Almalki, a Qatari psychologist.
â€śBoys have their cars, their friends, their own lives. Girls donâ€™t get that at all, so they have more time to study,â€ť she explains.
Signs of progress
For all their education, women remain underrepresented in the workforce: Only 35 percent of Qatari women work, compared with 68 percent of men. Qatar has a goal of bringing female participation up to 42 percent by 2016, but it's a hard sell because generous welfare benefits remove any financial incentive. For families, a second income is rarely necessary.Â
Then there's tradition. Shareefa Fadhel, founder of the Roudha Center, which trains women who want to start their own businesses, says that most families have no objection to their daughters working, but about 80 percent of them prefer that they work in gender-segregated offices. That limits promotion opportunities by preventing interaction with supervisors, who are usually men.
And men are still preferred for senior positions.Â
â€śThere are not enough Qatari men that could be in leadership positions. So when a potential leader or manager is identified, firms and companies, including governmentÂ entities, hold on to them tightly and promote frequently, even if that meansÂ this man is moving from oneÂ organization to another,â€ť Ms. Fadhel explains. â€śConsequentlyÂ women are forgotten and left behind inÂ the development and leadershipÂ ladder."
Among younger Qataris, there are signs of progress: More than 60 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34 work.
Aysha Erbad, 30, says all of her friends work. The instruments engineer at Maersk Oil Qatar acknowledges that some industries, like hers, are difficult to mesh with local customs, but that companies are trying to strike a balance.Â
Many families don't want their daughters to work on offshore oil rigs overnightÂ or for extended periods of time away from home, as workers often do in the oil and gas sector, she notes. So Maersk allows women to conduct day visits to offshore sites.
Michael Ross, author of "The Oil Curse," says the Gulf's dependency on oil explains why there are so few women working in the region. Rapid oil-driven wealth means that countries skip stages of industrialization that would normally bring more women into the workforce.Â
Moreover, most available jobs in Qatar are in construction and petroleum industries, which are male-dominated around the world, says Prof. Ross, who teaches political science atÂ the University of California at Los Angeles.Â
Many young Qatari men say they expect to marry women with jobs.
Mohammed Al Mulla, a 29-year-old who co-founded a local coffee shop, is married with two young sons. His wife works as a legal assistant at Qatar Petroleum.
â€śLetâ€™s be honest, most Qataris donâ€™t really need the money from the wife working,â€ť he says. â€śBut I think itâ€™s almost an expectation that if a man marries, the woman would be working because Qatari women want to have a career and a professional network.â€ťÂ
His wifeâ€™s experience has been transformative, he says. He guesses that many menÂ would be prepared to do more childcare and housework to make it work.
â€śShe even has more energy for the kids because she has more personal goals outside of the family to focus on,â€ť Mr. Al Mulla says. â€śIt will definitely be a good thing. I mean, this is basically more equality in a relationship instead of just dumping everything on the mom.â€ť
Khalifa Alâ€™Attiyah, a 26-year-old who runs his own marketing company, reckons that at least half of Qatari men would be fine with a working wife. He says he wouldn't mind marrying a fellowÂ entrepreneur.
â€śDoes she have money? We could pull resources!â€ť he says jokingly. â€śI would never force her to stay at home. Because then itâ€™s not like a relationship â€“ itâ€™s more like slavery.â€ť