By Peter Iantorno
With the Women in Leadership Economic Forum taking place in Saudi Arabia for the first time ever on March 19-20, the forum's founder, Sophie Le Ray, explains why this this such an important step for empowering women in the region.
The global edition of the WIL Economic Forum was founded in 2009. In the years since, it has grown from a small networking club to a purpose-driven community of women and men, focused on elevating diversity and inclusion to the forefront of both business and society as a means of sustainable economic development. As the forum grew, so did its global focus and relevance.
“It made sense for us to consider looking at regional chapters, where we felt we could add value to the conversation,” says Sophie Le Ray, the forum’s founder. “So far, the forum has travelled to India, Malaysia and China. Later this year, we also plan to hold an African edition.
“For us, there was no doubt that the time was right to hold the WIL Economic Forum KSA. In fact, even since we began the planning process last year, we have seen major advancements in the Kingdom. It is very clear from Vision 2030 that the government understands that women play a key role in delivering a sustainable, futureproof economy. It is putting the significant framework in place to support women in the workplace,” she continues.
And although the primary focus of the forum will be on women, there’ll also be attention given to other key factors in Saudi Arabia’s economic climate. “Specific targets of the Vision include a pledge to lower unemployment from 11.6 percent to seven percent and boost private sector GDP contributions from 40 percent to 65 percent by the end of the next decade,” Le Ray says. “A key pillar of the forum looks at youth engagement and the role of private sector in empowering the next generation of leaders.”
Held under the theme ‘Let’s talk about tomorrow’, the forum is going to discuss and address areas including economic empowerment, Saudisation, diversity and inclusion and entrepreneurship. “We will look at how all of these are vital components in building a sustainable economy, with engaging conference sessions, keynotes, workshops and facilitated networking sessions. This is really an opportunity for us all to hear from Saudi’s brightest minds and change makers, as well as international speakers who can add value to the discussions in the Kingdom.”
According to Le Ray, a diverse workforce is vital for the long-term success of any economy. “This is a global issue and one which has really taken centre stage here in the GCC in recent years,” she says. “Across the region, we have seen governments putting strategic visions in place to build sustainable economies, ready for a post-oil era. They know that the answer lies in diversified economies. We are seeing a great deal of innovation and opportunity across many different industries, both old and new. But without doubt, the success of a diversified economy rests on having the workforce to underpin it. According to McKinsey, advancing women’s equality could contribute $12 trillion to global growth by 2025. Imagine if every section of society who is underrepresented is given the opportunity to contribute fully to the economy? Diversity is good for business.
“In Saudi Arabia, 70 per cent of the country’s population is aged 30 or younger, yet young Saudis are the least likely to find employment in the private sector. Vision 2030 offers a long-term framework to address this and to build and support a strong workforce. The forum is designed to support that vision and to help facilitate meaningful discussions between private and public sector. The focus is very much on tangible outcomes – to understand why the vision is so important, but to also understand how we can achieve it together.”
The move to bring the WIL Economic Forum to Saudi Arabia for the first time is in keeping with a greater shift towards equality in the Middle East. “Particularly in this region, we have taken great strides to empower women in the workplace,” says Le Ray, who is also CEO of liquid growth market experts Naseba. “We are seeing an increase in women taking leadership roles across both private and public sector. It’s good news – but there is more to it than simply looking at the numbers and we certainly still have more ground to cover. We also need to look at the barriers preventing women from entering the workforce in the first place. The GCC has some of the highest rates of women graduates in the world, particularly in STEM areas, yet many of these women do not go on to have a career in their field of study. We need to ensure that the structure is in place to support these women from entry-level through to leadership. Workplace bias is still a global issue, both unconscious and implicit, as is unequal pay. More and more businesses are taking measures to address this and I expect that to continue in 2018 and beyond, but others must follow.”
And with such great progress so far, it’s no surprise that Le Ray has high hopes for the future. “Growing the footprint of our WIL Economic Forum has been a major achievement,” she says. “The journey to women’s economic empowerment has come a long way in this region and we are honoured to have facilitated progress in this space. Having seen the benefits our WIL series brings to individuals, businesses and entrepreneurs, we will always look to new frontiers.”