By now, most American women in finance have read the headlines about their female counterparts in the Middle East -- the trailblazers who are making great strides despite the many challenges that still exist in the region.
In Dubai alone, there is Huda Ali Redha Al-Lawati, a principal at Abraaj Capital, the region's largest private equity firm, and Hoda Abou-Jamra, a founding partner of a $40 million health care fund.
These names represent just a few of the women who are breaking down barriers in the region's male-dominated workforce, not to mention an industry that is still largely underrepresented by women worldwide.
To learn firsthand how women are participating in the economic success of the Middle East, the Financial Women's Association of New York (FWA) held its 27th annual international conference in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last month.
This is what we found: If you are a woman looking to start a business in the UAE -- this is your moment. Today, women are forming start-ups in the region that range from multi-million dollar private equity funds and tech start-ups to western-inspired fashion labels and successful yoga studio chains. The opportunities are ripe for local and foreign women alike, thanks to several key factors that are leading a female business boom in the region.
It starts with the government's commitment to providing a high standard of education for both men and women. Today, the literacy rate for UAE women is 90 percent. Also, it is encouraging that the UAE Constitution promotes gender equality, including equal pay for equal work under the Labor Law and the right for women to inherit property. All of these factors have created a fertile environment for the seeds of female entrepreneurship to grow.
It is no secret that the UAE's vast oil reserves, ranked as the world's sixth largest, have afforded the region an enviable level of wealth and opportunity, as evidenced by the ubiquitous images of Dubai's jaw-dropping indoor ski park, its towering luxury hotels and impressive man-made archipelago. These awe-inspiring developments are shining beacons for the region's pro-business environment.
The delegation experienced the palpable energy behind the UAE's pro-women environment, although this sense of modern-day Muslim feminism is growing quietly, with decidedly less fanfare. In fact, rather than a movement, the trend toward women in business seems to be a bit of an after-thought, as if the general populace in the UAE considers it obvious that women can be successful players in a world once dominated by men. In a word, it was refreshing.
In fact, a 2007 study by the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, found that a third of women-owned enterprises in the United Arab Emirates generated over $100,000 a year, versus only 13 percent of American women-owned firms. Undoubtedly, many Americans may be surprised by statistics like these, which challenge our stereotypes.
Despite our cultural differences, I was struck by how American and Emirati business women are striving for the same goals: diversity on corporate boards, the need for improved business operations and gender equality in regards to compensation and career advancement.
These are key issues for financial women throughout the world, and the FWA is the convening point to advance the issues locally and in emerging markets like the UAE -- where we found that we had more in common with the women we met than not.