But there is one thing that unites the women depicted in a new book,Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future. It’s a fierce determination not to be held back by circumstance, tradition or self-doubt.
Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Everest, the business magnate Raja Al Gurg, and Donna Sultan, chief executive of the architectural and engineering firm KEO International Consultants, are among those lending their voices to the book.
The book was launched last week in Dubai, where there were plenty of empowered and powerful women to tell their stories.
But despite its upbeat title, Game Changers paints a rather bleak picture.
While the climate is undoubtedly changing, it points to a stark disparity between the number of women completing higher education and those going into, and succeeding, in the workplace.
Research by the book’s three authors shows that while 65 per cent of graduates in the GCC are women, only 26 per cent of women of working age go on to get jobs – half the global average of 52 per cent.
Those figures drop to 15 per cent when it comes to women in a supervisory role and as low as 5 per cent for leadership roles.
“Given the fact women on average in this region outperform men in all educational areas, it is having an impact on productivity and on positivity in the workplace,” says David Jones, who co-wrote the book with fellow researchers Sophie le Ray and Radhika Punshi.
Five years ago Jones and Punshi set up human resources consultancy Talent Enterprise.
About two-thirds of the people coming through their consultancy are GCC nationals, although the results of their study include expatriates.
The researchers noticed that factors including family and childcare pressures, lack of economic necessity to work and lack of flexibility in working hours were keeping women out of the workplace, with just one in four employed.
“Women are gaining significantly in education but they continue to be lower down in the workplace,” says Punshi.
“At every critical transition point for women, you are losing half the workforce and therefore half of the potential, which we think is concerning.
“There are a number of reasons. Women in places like Saudi, Qatar and the UAE have had the choice to work. It has not been an economic necessity like it is everywhere else.
“Second is the regulatory environment, which means it is not easy sometimes for housewives to get working visas. And there is not enough clarity from a regulation perspective about part-time and flexible jobs.”
Their findings are backed by a 2013 World Bank report called Opening Doors: Gender Equality and Development in Mena.
It pointed to economic, legislative and cultural obstacles conspiring to keep women out of jobs. But it also found they were better educated, healthier and outnumbering men at university level.
In Qatar, women were nearly seven times as likely as men to go to university. Once they graduated, it was a different story.
Women on average dropped out of the workforce at the age of 25, whether they had children or not.
The World Bank report also found that women in the region were struggling to balance a career with raising a family – arguably a global problem, with women in the West facing the added pressure of an economic need to work and the steep cost of childcare.