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Organizations in the Middle East need real DEI objectives, not tokenism

Portraying diversity without genuine inclusion is not practicing DEI, but it can be solved.

Organizations in the Middle East need real DEI objectives, not tokenism
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

What are young workers looking for in an employer? Workplace culture is a high priority, behind only work-life balance and pay. In the Middle East, companies realize addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is crucial and are hiring more women. But there is skepticism that women are hired to bring surface diversity to an organization, not necessarily inclusion.

While companies seek to build a diverse and inclusive workforce, they may need to execute more effectively against their DEI plans. 

“Companies must adopt comprehensive DEI strategies beyond surface-level diversity to combat supertokenism effectively. This involves creating inclusive policies and practices that empower all employees, regardless of gender, background, or identity,” says Priyanka Senger, CEO of Women First Jobs, the UAE’s first women-only job portal. 

In countries where women represent a much lower percentage of the workforce, tokenism may be more heavily present. “That requires a shift in cultural mindset, but that doesn’t happen overnight,” says Niki Armstrong, Chief Administrative and Legal Officer, Pure Storage.

Applying diversity in the workplace leads to enhanced decision-making and innovation. “When addressing DEI, it is crucial to start with a deep commitment towards the culture from the leadership team – a top-down approach,” says Amel Chadli, President of Gulf Countries, Schneider Electric. 

To ensure tokenism doesn’t become a common practice within an organization, measurable DEI objectives must be increased and carefully established to help boost accountability and transparency.

“Organizations must focus on building equity into systems for long-lasting impact and genuine inclusion rather than just looking at how the demographics present themselves,” says Philippa Hunter, EMEA DEI Lead at ServiceNow.


It’s no secret that women in many professional roles, including technical roles, are underrepresented. And it is critical to encourage and empower female participation in sectors such as STEM, renewable energy, and digital transformation. While the creative field sees women in senior positions, they miss the opportunities in industries like technology, business, and engineering.

“We need to ensure that women and girls have equal access to STEM education from an early age and continue to support lifelong learning and skills development. Programs that specifically target vocational training, technical skills, and entrepreneurship can help bridge the gap,” says Chadli.

All agree that dismantling exclusion starts from within, so training for sensitivity and awareness is essential and helpful. 

For example, encouraging women back into the workforce after maternity leave would reduce the loss of talent. “Setting up a team or a panel of allies can ensure that every step of the hiring process is examined for bias,” says Riddhima Whabi, Brand Director RocketLinen.

To ensure companies are not only hiring women into professional and technical roles but also supporting them once they’re there, Armstrong suggests that organizations partner with local universities to build talent pipelines from their early education STEM programs directly into a company’s early career program. “This will allow for capturing female talent at the start and nurturing growth and opportunities early on.”

Moreover, it is vital to establish clear policies and cultural practices that enable women to overcome barriers that their male counterparts may not face. This also involves introducing legal protection and financial inclusion frameworks to end gender-based discrimination. 

Mentorship programs and initiatives go a long way, says Sengar, along with actively encouraging women to explore opportunities in traditionally male-dominated fields. 

Companies need to actively address bias and stereotypes that may hinder women’s progress in specific sectors, which involves raising awareness about unconscious bias, promoting gender diversity training, and implementing fair and transparent hiring and promotion practices, adds Sengar. 

Furthermore, implementing flexible work policies, like remote work options and flexible hours, can make it easier for women to balance their work and personal lives. 

“Creating an environment where women feel supported and valued, regardless of their circumstances, is key to fostering inclusivity,” says Sengar.

According to Hunter, if women are told early in their education that they can do anything they choose, if they see other women active across all sectors and roles and feel they belong vs. fitting in, it will make a huge difference. 


When it comes to hiring for DEI, there is much to consider. Hiring managers essentially pave the way for the experience the woman being hired will have in the organization. But do they know what inclusivity means? 

“This isn’t just about ticking a box; it’s about ensuring that every team member involved in recruitment is equipped to appreciate and seek out the richness diversity brings to our workplace. It’s about ensuring every new hire feels valued, supported, and empowered from the moment they consider joining us,” says Chadli.

Sengar argues that developing and implementing tailored recruitment and mentorship efforts could do just the trick in the women-underrepresented sectors and industries. 

“Pairing female employees with mentors who can provide guidance and support in their chosen field can be incredibly beneficial,” she says.

More importantly, investing in inclusive hiring training sessions for all hiring managers is a proactive measure that enhances diversity and inclusion within the workforce and contributes to a more innovative, productive, and engaged team. The move also sets the tone for more informed and objective hiring, debunking any internal or external biases present.

“Inclusive hiring training empowers hiring managers to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and provides them with strategies to mitigate unconscious biases that may influence their hiring decisions,” says Segar.


Enabling women in leadership roles across sectors will similarly help scale gender diversity organically. McKinsey’s Diversity Matters Report proves that increased gender diversity in the boardroom positively impacts the bottom line, signifying that even companies benefit from adopting or expanding their DEI objectives.   

“Women are more likely to practice ‘service leadership’ seeing their role as creating an environment where their teams can flourish and succeed. Like anyone, women want to be recognized for their skills and competency; not because they are women, it should be their skills and competencies that drive them into sectors,” says Hunter.

Creating space for women at the top requires organizations to get serious about the diversity of their executive staff, where actions speak louder than words. Armstrong suggests that setting measurable targets over a 3-5-year period and being transparent about your progress is one way to go about it.

Sponsorship is another crucial step, whereby female talent should be mentored and supported by an organization’s senior staff.

Aside from cultivating a culture that values and prioritizes gender diversity in leadership roles, mentorship, and sponsorship programs are pivotal in nurturing the next generation of female leaders.

“A big part of our strategy is centered around mentorship; we know how important it is for our female colleagues to have role models and advocates in their corner, helping them navigate their career paths to the top,” says Chadli.

Prioritizing training and development initiatives is important in guiding employees toward identifying and tackling biases, microaggressions, and systemic obstacles.

Additionally, transparency and accountability are crucial to driving meaningful change. Companies should establish clear diversity goals, track progress, and hold leadership accountable for advancing gender diversity initiatives.

While companies must develop their DEI objectives, Katharina Hicker, Founder and Managing Director of Castleforbes Communications, who trains women to be board-ready, says communication is essential for any leader and aspiring board members. 

“It’s about becoming an inspiring, persuading communicator who fosters collaboration, promotes action, and drives meaningful impact.” 

Similarly, Whabi says it isn’t merely about women being present in boardrooms but more about women being a part of conversations that lead to key decision-making. “Creating socializing opportunities in which women are taking part as much as men are. This would mean giving women a voice to contribute in implementing structural changes and would lead to their opinion being considered when boardroom decisions are being taken.”

Just as important is for women to be their own cheerleaders.

“No one will advocate for you as effectively as you can for yourself. A strong brand will help ensure visibility, positioning women as authorities in their field. You might not like the current board environment, and arguably, this is why many women decide not to go for these positions, but that doesn’t change the fact that you will always have to handle diverse personalities,” says Hicker.

“Gain confidence in your abilities and skill set and manage stakeholders to your advantage,” she advises. 

Fast Company Middle East’s Best Workplaces for Women, an annual list recognizing organizations, leaders, and teams that are empowering, supporting, and encouraging women in the workplace, will be revealed on 8th March, 2024. Click here to read more.

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Suha Hasan is a correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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