The UAE, along with the rest of oil-rich Middle East, experienced rapid economic prosperity with the discovery of oil. The wealth generated from this resource led to a structural change in the economy, society and landscape of this region. Under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed, known as the father of the nation, quality of life improved and the UAE prospered. In his development plan, Sheikh Zayed saw education as playing a crucial role and utilised the oil wealth to make education accessible to the Emirati population. He built separate male and female institutions of higher education and encouraged people to send their daughters to school (Adam 2009). Today, higher education is publicly provided to Emirati nationals, through universities and a series of technical and vocational colleges. The UAE is also host to a range of private institutions that cater to the expatriate population and tend to be co-educational. Sheikh Zayed paved the way for an attitudinal change towards education and women, allowing Emirati women a wide range of such opportunities that were not available to previous generations (Adam 2009).
Such state interventions have insured that education is valued in Emirati society. The adult literacy rate of the UAE was at 90% while the youth literacy rate was at 95% in 2005, according to World Bank indicators. Such high statistics, however, hide the gender gap, argues Ridge (2009), as men lag behind in terms of enrollment and performance scores and have higher dropout and ‘no-show’ rates. Thomas, Raynor and Al-Marzooqi (2012) look at the impact of gender and martial status on undergraduate academic performance. Using a pool of students from Zayed University, they find that female students have statistically significant higher scores than male students. The higher score of married students, however, ceases to exist once the authors control for age. Overall, such studies point to the dominant role women play in higher education.
A wide range of motivations push women in the Emirati society to pursue education today. Abdulla (2005), in her study of undergraduate female students at Technical College and Urban University, finds that Emirati women pursue education due to family expectations for upward social and economic mobility, education as an insurance policy against future hardship (i.e. divorce or widowhood), to achieve a set goal and because it is an acceptable norm. Parents insist that daughters purse education as they themselves have low education levels, Abdulla explains. Along with these reasons, Abdulla also finds some evidence of that view that education is a “waiting station for marriage” and that it increases the chances of finding a better husband (p. 99). These women view education as both an end and as a means to gain financial independence or raise children (Abdulla 2005).
Along with family and societal encouragement, women are also driven by advancement, employment possibilities and government level influences. Sukumaran (2013), in his master’s dissertation, interviewed women in postgraduate education in technical and science subjects. He found that family and social environment, roles models, career maturity, potential employment and governmental drivers, such as scholarships, are the main reasons these women pursued higher education. Together society, the labor market and supply of educational opportunities motivate Emirati women to pursue higher education.
For some women, education can be understood as a coping mechanism. Marmenout and Lirio (2014) look at HRM strategies that can be used to retain female talent in the local labor force and find that one of the four strategies that women use to overcome societal norms that discourage working, include continuing education, which families are generally more supportive of.
Part of the motivation in education also lies in its trans formative power. Madsen and Bradley (2010), explain how innovative learning in a university setting allow for self-understanding, self-realisation and critical reflection in a sample of Emirati women studying at Abu Dhabi Women’s College. Similarly, Wells and Honan (2014), who study Emirati women participating in a Master of Education degree program, found that these women go through a personal and professional transformation, through which they better understand their capabilities and opportunities. Furthermore, these women gained a sense of confidence, positivity and responsibility and were able to adopt coping strategies to tackle work and family responsibilities.
Even though more and more Emirati women are pursuing higher education, some fields remain under represented by female students, such as the science, technology and engineering (STE) subjects. Aswad, Vidican, and Samulewicz (2011a) explore the low representation of Emirati women in the STE fields. They find a lack of awareness and understanding of choices and abilities among local students with regards to careers in STE. In terms of educational advice, Aswad et al. found that Emirati female students relied particularly on the advice of the extended family when choosing a major and depended on parental approval to engage in extra-curricular activities. This inhibited entrance into engineering, for example, as it was associated images of labor, construction, men and academic difficultly. In another paper, the same authors look at how these degree decisions are driven by the socio-economic background of the family, measured through family income and educational attainment of the parents. Aswad et al. (2011b) established that students from a wealthier family and students with highly educated mothers are more likely to study in a non-STE field. They explained this social stratification in STE enrollment by arguing that wealthier students can rely on family connections for employment whereas qualifications are more necessary for middle and lower class students as they view education as an instrument to work. The under-representation of women in certain sectors, such as STE, becomes particularly important as UAE moves to knowledge-driven sectors.
Going Forward: Social Norms
Women’s freedom in education, however, is guided by social norms and family expectations. Emirati women are motivated and encouraged by their families to pursue higher education within the expected norms of fields and sectors that women should pursue (i.e. education and health sector) (Abdulla 2005). Similarly Sukumaran (2013), finds that while a wide range of factors encourage education, women have to operate with gender roles, tackle work-family responsibilities and have to ‘prove’ themselves. Overall, women’s entrance into education is driven and the choices they make while they study are driven my societal norms. This helps to explain why higher literacy rates of women have not translated into higher participation of women in the labor force.
- Abdulla, F. (2005) “Emirati Women: Conceptions of Education and Employment.” Arizona: The University of Arizona.
- Adam, K. (2009) “Women’s Empowerment and Leadership in Education: A Key Factor for Emiratisation in the United Arab Emirates.” South Africa: University of South Africa.
- Aswada, N. G., Vidicana, G. and Samulewicza, D. (2011a) “Creating a Knowledge-Based Economy in the United Arab Emirates: Realising the Unfulfilled Potential of Women in the Science, Technology and Engineering Fields”. European Journal of Engineering Education, 36 (6): 559–70.
- Aswada, N. G., Vidicana, G. and Samulewicza, D. (2011b) “Assessing the Impact of Socio-Economic Inequities on College Enrolment: Emerging Differences in the United Arab Emirates”. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33 (5): 459–71.
- Madsen, S. R., and Cook B. J. (2010) “Transformative Learning: UAE, Women, and Higher Education.” Journal of Global Responsibility, 1 (1): 127–48.
- Marmenout, K. and Lino, P. (2014) “Local Female Talent Retention in the Gulf: Emirati Women Bending with the Wind.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25 (2): 144–66.
- Natasha, R. (2009) . The Hidden Gender Gap in Education in the UAE. Policy Brief. Dubai: Dubai School of Government.
- Saqr, S., Tennant, L. , and Stringer., P. (2014) “Perspectives of Emirati Women in Higher Education.” International Journal of Education and Research, 2 (1)
- Sukumaran, S. (2013) “Women Enrolled in Postgraduate Education in Technical and Science Subjects: A Case Study of 10 UAE National Students.” Dubai: The British University in Dubai.
- Thomas, J., Raynor, M., and Al-Marzooqi, A. (2012) “Marital Status and Gender as Predictors of Undergraduate Academic Performance: A United Arab Emirates Context.” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives, 9 (2)
- Wells, M.and Honan, E. (2014) “Becoming a ‘Full’ Woman: Emirati Women’s Experience of Postgraduate Studies.” US-China Education Review B, 4 (3): 164–74.