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In the Middle East, women with young children are giving up their careers. Can this change?

Career breaks, lack of organizational support, and societal barriers impede the career advancement of new mothers.

In the Middle East, women with young children are giving up their careers. Can this change?
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

Women in the Middle East continue to face significant barriers in the workforce. Two years ago, a mere 19% of the workforce comprised women, marking one of the lowest female workforce participation rates globally. This persistent gender gap hinders women’s economic empowerment and is  a hurdle to overall regional economic growth.

At the same time, a new generation of women, characterized by a PwC Middle East report as “highly educated and motivated,” are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. This shift sees them remaining employed longer to pursue career goals, with their presence increasingly felt across various sectors, from public policy and diplomacy to entrepreneurship and corporate leadership.

In the Middle East, however, a significant challenge persists for a certain segment of women — new mothers are forced to leave their careers after having children due to a lack of support structures and cultural expectations. 


As per PwC Middle East’s 2022 Women in Work survey findings, numerous women re-entering the workforce following a career hiatus feel a lack of support from their employer. Gender biases and the absence of flexible work policies largely contribute to this.

Working mothers face hurdles throughout their careers, says Majed Nasr, Head of Human Resources EMEA Emerging Markets, Johnson & Johnson; these challenges begin as early as the hiring process, where he suggests they might encounter unconscious bias and discrimination impacting their chances of getting hired or promoted.

Additional obstacles include the limited availability of flexible work arrangements or remote work options. This lack of flexibility makes it difficult for mothers to achieve a healthy work-life balance and manage work and family commitments. The scarcity of accessible and affordable childcare options in the region is also a significant constraint.

“Employers may view career gaps due to childcare responsibilities negatively, overlooking the skills and experiences that mothers bring to the table,” adds Nasr.

Returning to the workplace after having children is one of the most challenging decisions a woman can face, says Radwa Samir, VP of Human Resources at Sumerge. “The emotional rollercoaster of whether to leave your child and go to work or leave your work and stay with your child is sometimes too much for anyone to handle.”

She adds that companies have unrealistic expectations of these women. “There’s the career gap women face after taking a long time off. Returning to the company after staying at home for months and expecting to perform as if nothing changed is a mindset that needs to be changed in the work field.”

More governmental support is needed for women. Talking about her personal experience, Premila Braganza, Human Resources Director of dmg events Middle East, Asia & Africa, says, “Even though the UAE has increased its maternity leave entitlement, it’s not enough compared to what other countries offer. Childcare isn’t accessible to all, which is a big challenge for many. This was a steep learning curve when I had my first child many years ago.”


Another widely discussed aspect is that female representation in senior management remains disproportionately low. This isn’t for a lack of ambition, as 84% of women aspire to assume leadership roles in their respective fields. Additionally, 80% are confident in their ability to lead others, while 86% believe they possess the requisite skills and experience to advance to the next stage of their careers.

However, the prospect of motherhood and a consequent career break are highly likely to ruin those plans. Many women exit the workforce following marriage or childbirth. In 2019, only 7.6% of managerial positions within Saudi organizations were occupied by women, a statistic similar to Qatar (13.9%), Lebanon (21.2%), and the UAE (21.5%).

Women are highly aware of the risk. According to PwC’s survey, 46% of respondents have taken a career break, with 25% anticipating doing so within the next 12 months. Many fear they will return to lower-paid roles.

Braganza says that women will likely start from scratch when they re-enter the workforce. “If a woman decides to stay home to look after her child, the career break resets her career trajectory, and women rarely pick up where they left off. 


Another significant challenge working women with young children in the region face is cultural hurdles. A 2023 Bain & Company survey revealed that 70% of women in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries identified gender bias and ingrained stereotypes as major obstacles to their career progression. 

According to Samir, women are expected to prioritize family responsibilities over their professional pursuits. “If a woman can’t find a balance between work and family, then for sure she’s the one expected to leave her job.” 

“Unrealistic expectations can also lead women to leave their jobs so they can maintain a healthy marriage and family lifestyle,” she adds.

Braganza observes that mothers who aim for a career often encounter criticism.“There is the judgment of women who choose to return to work for leaving their children at daycares or with nannies rather than empathy that the decision may be based on financial needs or even the desire for a successful career.” 


Adjusting cultural expectations could be the beginning of significant change. Nasr says organizations could play their part by encouraging male employees to take an active role in caregiving responsibilities, promoting a more equitable distribution of household duties within the workforce.

Nasr further explored ways organizations could support and build a more gender-diverse workforce, including implementing flexible work arrangements and parental leave, providing tailored mentorship and career development opportunities for working mothers, fostering a workplace culture that values and respects working mothers, and offering on-site or subsidized childcare options.

However, organizations are likely to take significant steps with governmental support and incentives. Nasr suggests that governments consider incentivizing companies that offer parental leave policies and support programs for working mothers.

Additionally, government-run returnship programs specifically designed for mothers returning from career breaks could facilitate reintegration into the workforce.

Further bolstering women’s competitiveness, government-funded training and upskilling programs could help mothers update their skill sets and stay relevant in the job market.

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