Expo 2020 Dubai, Dubai, Expo 2020, UAE
A projection of how a building's terrace will look like at Expo 2020. Source: Expo 2020 Dubai

Last week on International Women's Day (March 8), women around the Arab world spoke out about the pressing need for gender equality as they still face sexism while governments look for solutions and paths towards change.

As Expo 2020 approaches and international attention turns to the United Arab Emirates, the latter's recent strides concerning gender equality show what it will take to advance women's empowerment across the region.

The UAE has taken major steps to break down disparities between men and women and Expo 2020 - led by a female UAE minister and powered by a team that's half women - provides a key opportunity for Arab leaders to learn from the country's progress. Last year, the UAE ranked 26th in the world on the UNDP's Gender Equality Index — the highest of any Arab country. But the Middle East as a whole still ranked the lowest in the world.

Across the Arab world, women are subjected to repressive laws, domestic abuse, and other gender-based violence. Over 35 percent of women in Arab countries experience domestic violence and the abuse is often permitted by law.

Expo 2020, Terra , Sustainability Pavilion, Dubai
Expo 2020's Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion. Source: Expo 2020 Dubai

In many countries in the region, women are legally barred from traveling, holding a job, or choosing where to live without a man's permission. In Saudi Arabia, the government has recently lifted some restrictions on women but continues to criminalize and repress women who speak out.

Indeed, the region's most pressing gender equality challenges center on political and economic empowerment. Speaking at the Global Women's Forum in Dubai in February, World Bank President David Malpass said that gender discrimination costs the economies of the Middle East $575 billion per year, a figure backed up by data from the OECD.

In many Arab countries, less than half of women work outside their home and on average, women in the region earn an estimated 28 percent of what men earn. This has an enormous impact on social mobility, as women struggle to gain financial independence and are tied to the male-dominated family structure.

But there is also progress on a regional level. The World Bank has found that the Middle East as a whole improved more than any other region in terms of gender equality in 2019; this improvement was due primarily to government initiatives.

As gender inequality persists, it is increasingly crucial for states across the region to look to leaders who have begun to address the issue; the UAE is a perfect example. The country's constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women but as in many countries, it takes specific policies and programs to help realize women's rights.

Reem Al Hashemi, female minister, UAE
Reem Al Hashemi, UAE's Minister of State for International Cooperation. Source: Arabian Business

The World Expo - coming for the first time to the region - is a key piece of the UAE's push for gender equality, prioritizing women's leadership and working to guarantee men and women equal chances to participate. 

Expo 2020 is run by Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashemi, one of nine female ministers in the UAE. The initiative is founded on the principle that women and men are equal partners in the country's development. It also goes a long way towards deconstructing misconceptions about the role of women in Arab society by emphasizing female ownership of both technical and creative sides of the program.

This emphasis on female leadership offers a model for the region and has proved essential to most of the UAE's gender equality efforts. Women in the UAE have made significant strides in government leadership and now constitute a full 50 percent of the Federal National Council, the country's advisory parliament. As the council consists of 20 appointed members and 20 elected members, each Emirate has worked to ensure this balance. In cases where voters don't elect women to 50 percent of the seats, the government will appoint female leaders to make up the difference.

In the private sector, however, progress towards gender parity depends on both commitment and innovation.

In 2018, the UAE passed a law mandating equal wages and salaries for men and women while also launching the "20 for 2020" initiative that's aimed at achieving 20 percent female representation on corporate boards across the country by the end of the year. While 20 percent is still far from parity, the timeline is impressive, especially for the Arab region. Expo 2020 Dubai will likely help the government to rally the UAE business community around the campaign.

This push for rapid progress has been central to the UAE's efforts; the government hopes to push the country into the top 25 of the UNDP's Gender Equality Index by 2021.

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, the UAE shrunk the gender gap the most of any Arab nation. In its 2020 report on Women, Business and the Law, the World Bank found that the UAE was the second most-improved country in the world for equal gender rights.

Gender equality isn't just about numbers, it's about women's experiences, especially regarding social and economic integration. Achieving gender equality in the region depends on acknowledging both the challenges that remain and the progress that some states have already set in motion.

Gender issues are also highly dependent on local cultural contexts. It's essential for Arab states to look at how leaders within the region are already addressing gender inequality and come together to galvanize initiatives that are already working.