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Workplaces in the Middle East risk losing women. Women leaders tell us what could help

Minimizing microaggressions, flexible work arrangements, adopting inclusive behaviors, and language are key.

Workplaces in the Middle East risk losing women. Women leaders tell us what could help
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Are we still talking about this? Well, despite an increase in women holding leadership positions and marching to the boardroom, we know the climate all too well. Women are exhausted from the extra hurdles they face trying to advance; they feel overworked and undervalued and are fed up with microaggressions and toxic workplace cultures. All these add up over time, and women eventually get exhausted and opt out.   

At Fast Company Middle East, we have an all-women editorial team (we often joke that we need diversity); and we encourage innovative thinking and trying new things. 

Yet, here we are. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, globally, countries will take another 132 years to close the gender gap. In MENA, this figure stands at 115 years.

Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum, said the region had witnessed investment in women’s education, but much work was still to be done.

“Many more women need to go into leadership positions. That, I think, would have the biggest impact in terms of closing the gender gap in the region,” she said.

After years of advocating for women leaders, not enough has changed.  

While the tech sector’s massive layoffs don’t appear to be slowing anytime soon, women are leaving companies at the highest rate in years and the gap between women and men leaving is the largest ever seen.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace study, “If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders, they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too.”

So what’s a leader to do?

We talked to women leaders in the region to offer some how-tos to move this conversation forward as they understand first-hand the importance of flexibility and greater work-life balance; they have been through the barriers and slights women face every day in the corporate workplace. 

Here’s what they said:

Janine Seebeck, CEO at BeyondTrust

One of the lasting effects of the pandemic is that expectations about work have evolved significantly, and leaders need to be proactive about responding to these changes. Employees are seeking more flexibility and greater work-life balance, which are especially important to women, who often manage family or caregiver responsibilities outside of work.   

A one size fits all approach does not work, as different people have different constraints, needs, situations, and jobs. 

Leaders should be focused on making work compelling and engaging their teams, whether that work is done at the office or not.   

When I need to leave work early, I let people know it’s for family reasons, and I encourage other leaders – including men – to do the same. As a personal example, just this week, my son had a track meet at 2:45 PM one afternoon – so I took a call in the car on the way, caught up with work from the stands in between videoing his events, and then finished my work for the day in the later evening after my kids were in bed. This enables me to manage my schedule in a way that works for me and allows me to be present for family and work, which is important to me as a working mom.  

At the leadership level, when we show that we need flexibility and are managing a family or other personal obligations, it creates a mindset that our workplace supports these needs.

Reem Asaad, Vice President, Cisco Middle East and Africa

A recent Cisco study from the 3,000 working women surveyed across ten countries found that 31% intend to change jobs in the next six months, with workplace culture cited as a primary driver for seeking a new employer. Negative experiences range from employers not respecting women’s duties outside of work (such as those of working mothers and caregivers) to a lack of opportunities for women to advance in their careers.

Women who feel resilient in their positions consider leaders who respect their time a significant benefit. Working flexibly within remote and hybrid work models is also critical for attracting, retaining, and elevating women.

Beverly Rider, CEO of TONOMUS Venture Studio

Attracting talent is key to enabling NEOM to act as a central connector for the country and creating a dynamic platform for knowledge exchange. Extensive collaboration and ingenuity are needed, so ideas and perspectives from everyone, everywhere, are vital for TONOMUS’ pipeline of ventures to foster entrepreneurship and develop cognitive tech. We aim to attract and nourish global, best-in-class tech talent and enable investment in a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs – both from the region and beyond – who choose to accelerate their careers by moving to or working with NEOM. 

Zainab Alamin, VP of Digital Transformation & Sustainability, Microsoft

Women’s participation in the workforce provides balance. As we see more and more women losing their jobs or leaving the workforce, Saudi Arabia provides a completely different picture. 

The set target by Saudi Vision 2030 of 30% female labor force participation has been exceeded this year, reaching 35%. Moreover, the Gender Digital Divide Index Report 2022 ranked the kingdom among the top ten countries on indicators such as programs to support women’s STEM education and little-to-no gender gaps in digital payment systems. It takes a bold vision and strong leadership to reach such progress.

Khawla Hammad, Founder & CEO, Takalam

There are many steps leaders can take to support women in the workplace. It starts by creating an inclusive environment where women are given equal opportunities in career development, training, mentorships, job rotations, and more to help them take on leadership roles in the company. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse management teams had higher innovation and revenue and were more likely to generate new products. Moreover, promoting work-life balance and offering flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, job sharing, or flexible hours, to help women balance their responsibilities to their employers and families would all be very valuable to attracting and retaining female talent.

Sabine Holl, Vice President Technical Sales and CTO MEA, IBM

A new study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found structural barriers and unconscious bias to be dominant factors hindering women’s advancement. The study also found that the attributes perceived as critical for leadership remain gendered. To overcome these barriers and promote gender diversity in leadership, organizations must take active steps toward creating a more inclusive environment. This includes rethinking and changing the system, acknowledging and addressing challenges, partnering with women in leadership communities, and promoting employee resource groups. The study recommends specific actions such as reframing gender equity in terms of business results, enacting an action plan that goes beyond awareness training, and re-designing roles to work for top talent. It is crucial to make it a core value and mission to not only increase the number of women in leadership, but also to retain them by addressing unconscious bias, offering targeted professional development plans, and providing executive level support.

Samar Alshorafa, Founding CEO of She is Arab

Women are now looking for diverse and inclusive workplaces, bias-free, offer a clear path for growth and development, and a route to senior leadership positions with a supportive workplace culture. One free of microaggressions offers flexibility in work – ideally with hybrid work options, where they feel appreciated and have policies supporting motherhood and other family affairs. That is not an exhaustive list, but it could be a good starting point.

Haidi Nossair, Senior Director – Client Solutions Group – META, Dell Technologies

Diversity and inclusion must become a business imperative to ensure strong female representation in today’s workplace. Organizations must create a conducive culture where women want to work and

belong. They also need to set KPIs and track progress regularly. Within Dell, we have dedicated support groups –

Mosaic, Women in Action and True Ability are dedicated to supporting female employees in navigating day-to-day challenges and building successful, purpose-driven careers. By 2030, we aim to have women represent 50% of all workforce and 40% of all our senior leadership teams globally.

Emma Burdett, Founder of networking platform WILD

In the past few weeks, two female leaders on the world stage have resigned from their highest-ranking office positions publicly and famously — Jacinda Ardem, Prime Minister of New Zealand, followed by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. If female leaders at this level are finally feeling the burn, is it any wonder a typical female employee is asking themselves the same questions: Is it worth it? 

From an internal leadership point of view, gender stereotypes and gender myths still lead to unconscious bias in the workplace. While some companies are adopting flexible working to accommodate working mothers, we need to see greater cultural shifts, which will only come into play when mindsets towards women’s needs in the workplace shift.

The war on talent is fierce. All statistics point towards greater bottom-line commercial success for those organizations that support women and have women as part of their senior management teams. Leaders need to recognize this and enable women to feel inspired and empowered and create internal networks and opportunities for them, resulting in the ability to retain and attract the best female talent. 

Fida Kibbi, Vice President, Head of Marketing, Communications, Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson Middle East, and Africa

Developing a powerful network of mentors and sponsors is critical for career advancement as it gives women opportunities to tackle high-stakes assignments that give them a shot at becoming a member of the C-suite. Organizations must actively support women’s career advancement by providing mentorship, networking opportunities, and leadership development programs. They must address systemic barriers, such as unconscious bias, that may limit women’s access to leadership positions. At Ericsson, we spend significant time investing in expertise to develop new approaches to diversity and inclusion and launch several foundational initiatives that deliver continued impact over time.

Farimah Moeini, Head of industry – Retail and eCommerce at Snap Inc. in MENA

To increase the number of women in leadership, gender equity in the workplace must be promoted. Hiring more women and getting them to join the workforce is only the first step. Getting women into leadership is a real challenge and is the responsibility of every organization. There are a few simple strategies organizations can undertake to set the right culture for women to grow within their organizations. This includes monitoring the progress of women within the organization, creating resources for underrepresented groups, providing training and

development opportunities for women, supporting work-life balance, highlighting the achievements of women, and creating a safe space to discuss issues regarding gender bias. 

Helena Nimmo, CIO at Endava

Through active engagement, leaders can heighten their awareness of their responsibility to cultivate an inclusive culture where women have equal opportunities. Leaders must then turn this awareness into action by creating programs that foster gender equity. 

In addition, leaders must call out bias and adopt inclusive behaviors and language. For gender equity initiatives to become effective, they must be integrated into day-to-day activities and behaviors. Diversity and inclusion must become a routine of business operations rather than a discretionary add-on. Only then can it become an inherent aspect of company culture.

Rana Nawas, partner at Oliver Wyman and founder of the When Women Win podcast

There’s been a global shift since Covid-19, a revaluation of priorities, and a new perspective on what people want. Women have become more aware of the gaps in advancement, more aware that it takes women longer to get to the same point and that they’re paid less along the way. When this realization strikes them, there’s a flight to quality, a flight to a better opportunity, a flight to companies that show women that they have equal opportunity or equity.

If women leave in such high numbers, then that tells me there aren’t always the frameworks to build strong relationships where they work. That’s a huge missed opportunity. One thing that companies can do is think about how to help women foster these friendships in the workplace. Some would consider this a “nice to have,” but it’s a key talent retention factor. 

Fazeela Gopalani, Head of ACCA Middle East

Although there has been modest progress with women in leadership roles within financial services, holding 24% of senior positions, the MENA region still needs to catch up with much of the world. It’s clear this requires more than just short-term solutions; we must take steps to support female participation at all stages across their careers – especially during middle management, where momentum tends to decline for many women. We have an incredible opportunity to challenge decades-long systemic bias and build pathways for women of all backgrounds to reach their fullest potential in the workplace. 

With some gentle nudges, we could break down barriers that stand in the way of female executives taking on ever more expansive roles – empowering them with access to mentorship, resources, and support just like men receive during those crucial seven years before reaching executive status.

Elodie Robin Guillerm, Head of Growth and Strategy, Hub71

The importance of female inclusion in technology cannot be overstated. To remain competitive, the diversity of ideas, perspectives, and approaches is more crucial than ever. To achieve this, organizations must prioritize support programs dedicated to women at work who face unique challenges, especially childcare. In doing so, female founders and younger women, more generally, can be supported and feel empowered to break through any traditional barriers and excel to be the next role model. Progress has already been made, but more could be done to encourage women to accelerate economic and social progress the future will rely on.

Fatma Ashkanani, Chief Corporate Officer, Khazna Data Centers  

It’s important to balance the diversity in the tech field by providing women equitable access to training and structured guidance on their professional development, engaging them to present and lead on projects, giving effective and actionable feedback, and appointing them in visible leadership positions.

The competition to hire talented candidates for tech positions continues to be intense, and tech roles will be even harder to fill if women continue to be underrepresented in the industry. It is critical for companies to clearly understand what’s necessary to accelerate women’s progress in the industry, including opportunities, mentorship, empowerment, and support. 

Monica Hernandez Alarcon, HR Director, General Motors Africa and Middle East

In today’s fast-paced and dynamic work environment, leaders must foster gender diversity by promoting a culture of inclusion and equity. By celebrating diversity and encouraging different viewpoints to be brought to the table, we are creating a culture where every person feels seen, heard, and valued. Through immersive learning programs, psychological safety tools, mentorship opportunities, and professional development for women, we can address systemic barriers and reduce unconscious bias in the workplace. This can be anything from gender stereotypes to the lack of diversity in hiring and promotion practices, where we can help women thrive in the workplace and close the gender gap.

When we prioritize an inclusive work culture – where women are more confident about reporting non-inclusive behaviors, feel supported by their employers on work-life balance, and believe their careers are progressing – we can tap into the full potential of our workforce and build a stronger, more dynamic, and engaged team.

Pia Tabet El Hachem, General Manager UAE & Levant at Uber

As someone who works in the tech industry, I know women have long been underrepresented in the world of technology, especially in leadership roles, despite the significant contributions they have made and continue to make. Women in tech may not have a mentor or relatable role model to understand their perspective and challenges, which can stunt their progress. It is essential to promote women’s role models in the industry. This can be done through targeted recruitment, mentoring programs, and networking opportunities for women in tech.

Secondly, leaders must address issues like unconscious bias and discrimination – through training to help recognize and overcome these issues and through policies that support women and other minority groups. Such policies include recruiting, promotion, pay, representation, and flexible work.

Flexible work arrangements and schedules, such as hybrid work and calendar blocks for personal time, allow employees (men and women) to balance their professional and personal responsibilities fairly.

Thirdly, companies must invest in platforms and initiatives that amplify women’s voices in the industry. While the gap continues, we should still celebrate and champion women breaking the glass ceiling in unconventional environments.

Lastly, having a more diverse boardroom is critical, not just for the sake of diversity, but because diversity in thought and perspective is critical to business success. Seeing more women reach their full potential, be recognized, and celebrated will help inspire many more, create new role models, and strengthen opportunities for women across the board.

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