Qatari women may know what careers they want, but they remain hindered by traditional values and preconceptions in male-dominated industries.

More Qatari women have university degrees than men, yet female participation in the workforce is only about 35 per cent, well below national percentages in developed countries.

This striking imbalance, which is reflected in other Gulf countries, is the focus of concern for the Qatar International Business Women Association. The organisation recently held its third annual forum in Doha, in which representatives from 12 Arab countries, and private companies, participated.

Wael Sawan, executive vice-president of Shell Qatar, was on the panel of the opening session, which included four men and one woman – an irony apparently lost on many in the room. “In the last three years, we have moved as a leadership team in Qatar Shell from no women representation to two,” Mr Sawan says. “We have a long, long way to go to remove some of the systemic inequalities.”

Qatar wants to reduce cultural barriers that block women’s professional advancement and increase the number of women in leadership positions by 30 per cent. In 2009, only 3 per cent of employed women were in a leadership post, according to government figures.

The same phenomenon is at work in other Gulf countries, where women’s hunger for education has not yet been reflected in representation in leading positions in government and business. Women in Saudi Arabia represent 57 per cent of university graduates but account for only 12 per cent of the workforce. In the United Arab Emirates, only 28 per cent of the national labour force are women.

The extent to which Qatari women work is linked directly to the support they receive in balancing their professional and family duties, according to a government report. The government has said it would improve support by expanding childcare facilities and family-friendly business practices.

Qatar has laws relating to working women, such as those that regulate maternity leave, retirement benefits and gender equality at work. However, “traditional views about appropriate avenues for women’s employment (educational, administrative or clerical) prevail, despite the new opportunities created by Qatar’s economic development,” says the country’s National Development Strategy report.

“It is not about equality in the workplace,” says Reem al-Darwish, a business student. “It is also about what a family deems professionally acceptable for their daughter. Many families are close-minded; they don’t want their daughters to work in mixed [gender] areas.”

Sarah al-Mana, another student, says that while Qatari women may have achieved a great deal of equality in places of employment, no “man is going to stay at home and take care of the family while his wife works – as is the case in some countries”.

Although women remain absent from the leadership ranks, the views of working women in the Gulf region are changing. “Our mothers were housekeepers,” says Basmah Omair, a Saudi businesswoman, who lobbies for gender equality opportunities. But now women have limitless job opportunities in many fields, though they might be different from one country to another, she adds.

But Ms Omair did not forget to stress the traditional view on male and female equality in her region. “We don’t want to exchange roles to make the man in the home . . . what the woman wants and needs is equilibrium.