EXCLUSIVE: H.E Shamsa Saleh, CEO of Dubai Women Establishment Discusses Women’s Empowerment, Gender Balance and Inspiring Global Nations to Follow the Lead of the UAE

Lara Mansour   |   02-07-2021

H.E. Shamsa Saleh has held the role of Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Women Establishment since 2008.


Working directly with Her Highness Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – President of the UAE Gender Balance Council, and President of Dubai Women Establishment, and wife of His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, Saleh has been working to support gender balance and the empowerment of women in Dubai. Since joining the Establishment in 2008 her focus has been supporting women in the UAE, pushing the boundaries and rewriting the rules and stereotypes connected to women in the workplace. Under her leadership, Dubai Women Establishment has launched several key projects and initiatives which support the Establishment’s mission to enhance the crucial role of Emirati women as equal contributors to their society. The Establishment’s efforts have given more opportunities and offered greater support to Emirati women, allowing them to excel in the workplace and at the same time continue with having a family.


As a mother herself, Saleh fully understands the struggles many women face when balancing looking after their children while excelling in a career, and it was that experience that drove many of the Establishment’s initiatives over the last few years. H.E. was instrumental in the organisation of the first Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in the MENA region, Arab Women Leadership Forum, Women on Boards Initiative, Women Leadership Exchange Program, Emirates Leaders Gathering and the National Child Care Centers Project, amongst many others.



Aside from her work at Dubai Women Establishment, Saleh holds the position of Secretary-General of the UAE Gender Balance Council which was established in 2015. The Council was devised to support the UAE’s vision of becoming a regional and international leader in gender equality, taking women’s empowerment to the next level and giving equal opportunities to both genders.


Here we discuss with H.E. Shamsa Saleh the role of these key organisations in empowering women and offering equal opportunities to all, as well as the importance of Emirati Women’s Day and her vision for the future.


Tell us about Dubai Women Establishment – the role, the objective and the vision?

Dubai Women Establishment started in 2006 when the Government of Dubai began working on the Dubai Plan 2015. In that strategy, there was a clear pillar focused on women’s empowerment, but back then there was no entity in place to achieve this vision. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the formation of Dubai Women Establishment in 2006 and the Establishment launched officially in 2008 with the objective of increasing women’s participation in the economy. We focused on women in business, supporting working women, entrepreneurs and businesswomen.


We conducted an initial survey on a focus group of 7,000 women to find out what barriers and challenges they were facing in the workplace and we began recommending policies that would empower women in Dubai. Most of the challenges women faced were related to achieving a work-life balance. Women asked for childcare centres, a longer maternity leave, flexible working hours etc. We then started to create the Work-Life Balance Initiative to empower women. We also established the National Childcare Centre Project, which dictated that, by law, any government entity that employs more than 50 women, has to have a childcare centre. We started approaching government entities – most of them were happy to have a childcare centre but they didn’t have the know-how nor technicalities to put this in place. We developed a guide on how to establish a childcare centre in a corporate workplace. The first pilot project started with Dubai Customs where we opened a nursery in 2009 for around 60 women. After a year, we did an assessment to determine the impact of the nursery and we found it had increased the productivity of women, decreased the resignation of female workers, increased the happiness of women at work and increased the number of Emirati women joining the workforce. Furthermore, women who were in technical fields, such as port engineers, gained more motivation to go to work. The level of female recruitment increased because of these childcare facilities. This project also helped the children during early childhood thanks to the interaction and socialisation with other children. We had specialists working at the nurseries and, in some cases, they were able to identify learning difficulties in some of the children at a very early stage. It served many different purposes aside from women’s empowerment. It was a national project which really helped us achieve more than one objective.


In 2010, DEWA opened its first nursery as a pilot project. After they observed the progress they opened three additional childcare centres in different branches. Today, we have 53 nurseries, serving more than 1,000 women. It’s a great initiative and such practices have previously only been seen in the Nordic countries. We are proud of what we have done, and we have highlighted it on a global level. All of the Emirates are now implementing these childcare centres and following the same standards. Aside from the children enrolled in these centres, they are also creating job opportunities for women who have majored in early childhood education. The majority of staff in these centres are locals and Arabs. The effect on mothers and the convenience it offers leads to a better society, so much so that I am recommending to the Minister of Labour to also implement in the private sector.


Next, we proposed to the government that maternity leave needed to be increased – 45 days or 60 days were not enough. At that time the International Health Organisation advised us that the minimum maternity leave according to global standards and best practices was 90 days. So, we were able to amend the maternity leave period in the UAE and extend it from 60 to 90 days. We also took mothers with special cases – such as mothers of twins or women who have suffered from miscarriages – into consideration. This is something that has never been considered before in the UAE and it has helped a lot of women. We also advocated for flexible working hours, and this was implemented for working mothers in Dubai.


On the Gender Balance Council level, we worked on more than 20 reforms, which included a paternity policy for fathers, as well as protection for women who are pregnant in the workplace. So now, by law, an employer cannot dismiss a woman who is pregnant. We also added a clause that stipulates that workplaces cannot discriminate against women as well as dictating equality in the wages of both men and women. We observed a problem at senior levels as there was a large pay gap between men and women in similar positions, so we effectively closed that gap with this new law. We also removed a law stipulating that women do not have the right to leave the home for work unless they have the permission of their husband because, in practice, this was not realistic. We introduced a law that ensures no discrimination against women when they are applying for loans. All of these reforms have encouraged women to participate in the workforce, and to take on leadership positions. A few months ago, we implemented the Women on Board policy, which states that all publicly listed companies in financial markets must include at least one woman on their boards of directors. In two months, we had around 20 women appointed onto boards. As more companies restructure their boards, I think this number will further increase. In 2008, women accounted for 1.2% of board members, by 2015 it was 5 per cent, and I think by the end of this year we will reach 20 per cent, which is the global average. But the expectation is that we will get to more than 30 per cent and I hope to achieve that. In the past, there was a widespread misconception that women were not qualified to be in boardrooms and that they didn’t have the experience. At DWE, we are helping to provide training and experience and we are encouraging women to apply for opportunities. We also implemented a law in 2019 to increase female participation in parliament by 50 per cent and this is now effective with many women in parliament in the UAE.


All of these laws helped enhance women’s empowerment. The UAE’s progress and efforts have reflected globally, as the UAE has become a global example to others. We are beyond empowerment, and we are competing globally. For our 2030 Agenda, we will continue competing globally as we aim to be in the top 5 or top 10 in the world in all of these categories. Because we have already achieved women’s empowerment, in our new strategy we are looking at gender mainstreaming across all sectors.


We now have women involved in the space sector, for example. 40 per cent of the people accepted in Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid’s space programme were women. Another important agenda is food security, which is being led by a female minister. We have many other women in leading positions. For example, HE Reem Al Hashimi the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, while simultaneously leading Expo 2020, for example.



What kind of challenges do you face in your role and in working towards your goal?

As a woman, I still face challenges with achieving work-life balance because of my position. I have to travel and there are often long working hours. Being a mother myself, it is difficult when it comes to these commitments, but again it is also about the way each individual handles these things. You can manage your own time and make it part of your lifestyle.


Between 2008 to 2012 I had my children and I did struggle with this. Now, however, they are growing up and I have supporting facilities like a nursery at my workplace which my kids attended until they were four. I have flexible working hours as well so I can manage my time. When I travel I have the option of having my husband travel with me. There are many support systems in place on a corporate level – even some men are jealous of the initiatives we have implemented! I would say around 50 per cent of the issues related to work-life balance are now resolved thanks to the initiatives we have put in place.


Awareness and changing mindsets was a challenge and we have overcome this by highlighting the impact of what we do and why we are doing it. If you want to convince people you have to explain that this is not only in favour of women but it is in favour of society. We also have support from men and this is very important. Many of the UAE Gender Balance Council members are men, and they are great supporters and advocates of our agendas and initiatives. They are advocating for these things because they are seeing the overall benefits.


Moving forward, what is your vision on achieving this balance?

My overall vision in five or ten years from now is not to be thinking in terms of men and women. Without any discrimination, hiring should be done according to performance and eligibility and should not be gender-based. This is something that needs to start from the upbringing of the younger generation to remove stereotypes. Young women today are pushing boundaries, they want to prove themselves and this is built within education and early childhood. Gender equality has never been a local agenda, it is a global issue, and we need to take all the best practices from around the world and transfer this knowledge to the UAE while simultaneously supporting other countries. It’s a whole chain. In 2017 we created a Gender Balance Guide for the UAE and now the whole world is using it. The guide informs organisations how to be “gender-friendly”. Now we are working on a Gender Balance Toolkit which includes gender equality practices from A-Z. From basic needs to leadership empowerment. We are developing this toolkit in the UAE, and it can be used by any country anywhere in the world. It will feature case studies and tangible practices. We have worked with experts from around the world to bring this agenda to life and we will be launching it during Expo 2020. The platform that Expo will provide us with will give us the chance to have a global impact and it’s a project I am very proud of.



What are you most proud of from what you have achieved so far?

My background was in strategic planning. I wasn’t thinking about doing this kind of work, back then I had a mindset that 45 days for women to stay at home after having a baby was too long. I was not married at that point. When I moved to Dubai Women Establishment, I hit two birds with one stone – I got married and had my children, and at the same time I was working on the agenda to introduce initiatives to help working mothers. My first baby was premature, and he had to stay in the hospital for two months. At that point, I was only allowed to take two months of maternity leave. This is where I really noticed the importance of the work-life balance initiatives and the need for flexibility for women. When you experience it, you really understand. I am proud that I am helping women through the job I do. I see the Establishment’s initiatives in practice and this for me is a great achievement. When I see women getting longer maternity leave or being able to take their children to the childcare facilities I know that I am helping the community and I can see the impact. So yes it is my job, but I can see the results in practice and that makes me proud.


What is one thing you haven’t done yet that you still aim to achieve?

To be perfectly honest – I would like to do a PhD. It has been my dream for five years, but my work takes all of my time. I know I am capable, but time is the main constraint. Plus it requires me to travel. Currently, my youngest child is three years old. So maybe when they are a bit older.


What is the personal motto you live by?

In my world, everything is results-centred. No matter how much effort is invested, I don’t mind as long as the outcome is what we were aiming for. Results are always the indicators of success. Our decision-makers are very supportive as long as we present valid arguments and highlight the impact on society.


How do you access the progress of women in the UAE so far?

HH Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi is a major role model. She worked on the National Strategy with the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. She was the one who founded the General Women’s Union and the United Arab Emirates University. Since that time, all the majors that were for men, have also been accessible to women, but it was Sheikha Fatima in 1976 that led the way and established these roots. Then, in the 80s, a Federal Women’s Council and a Business Woman Council were established in every Emirate.


Today, the enrolment of women at high schools and universities is above 90 per cent. We are competing on a regional level. Today we have transcended mere women’s empowerment, and are rather embedding an overall culture of gender balance and equality.


Why is Emirati Women’s Day an important day for you?

I believe there is a motivational element to it. It allows women to feel proud of their and contributions and makes them want to achieve more. It is a celebration of pride, showcasing the achievements of women – much like International Women’s Day. I want to showcase and support women and this day sends out a very strong message.


This will also be a year where the UAE celebrates 50 years since its founding. 50 years is a very small time period, but Emirati women have achieved great results in such a short time. We have eliminated illiteracy and now the UAE is invited to be part of the G20 to speak and share our progress. Looking forward to the next 50 years to 2071, there will be a national strategy where cohesion and women’s participation is key and we will continue to be leading on an international level in terms of gender equality. For the next 50 years, we have a solid foundation and system to build on.



Who is your role model and what is a message you would dedicate to them?

It would definitely be His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. He took the UAE to a prestigious level amongst the international community. He has always been a motivational figure. Since before was appointed as the Prime Minister, he was always motivational, what he’s doing now is not only for the country, but he is also played a major role in making Dubai recognised around the world. If you go anywhere in the world today and you tell them you’re from Dubai it is as if you are a brand. I believe that we are all living the privilege that was set by our leader. In Arabic we have a saying: “You are the well where we source our water from.” This is how we see His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. We learn a lot from him, from his skills and his talks. Even in the most challenging of times he always makes sure to motivate. Despite the pandemic that we passed through – all the work on Expo continued. Everything in Dubai progresses and as a person, I always feel I’m in safe hands. This is his spirit; he has no fear. He has the spirit of challenge and because of this we as Emiratis are always ready for challenges that life may put us through.


We are a country driven by role models and when His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum makes any decision, we will follow. He is known for his support of women. Each time he makes a speech he makes sure to mention women. The first voting system that ever took place in the UAE was in 2006 and he said “I encourage women to go for elections.” Now half of the parliament is women. He is always on top of things, and he is a leader that is involved in everything and every detail. Even his daughter, Her Highness Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has a great level of involvement in all that surrounds women’s welfare.


We are noticing members of the Royal families from different Emirates making more public appearances and engaging more with the community on different projects, and that wasn’t something very common before. How important do you think is that?

I believe it’s important for us to have role models. At one time it wasn’t very common to see parents accepting their children to go out in public and speak, but when they see our leaders allowing their daughters and sons to speak, this is when they become role models to people in our country. People feel that if members of the Royal family can do it, then they can do it too. I recently had a discussion with my brother about this and I told him times have changed.


For example, look at what Her Highness Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has achieved so far and what she has contributed to the arts and culture of the country. Since she took the reins of the cultural authority – look at the progress of achievements. She is very involved, and she continued to be active, even throughout the pandemic. The truth is when you’re the son or the daughter of a Royal family member you don’t really have to work, but when you choose to, it makes you the perfect role model or leading example to others in society. So, when the daughters of the Sheikhs are working there is no excuse for the rest of us to not be proactive.