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Sat 15 Jul 2017 11:00 AM

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Challenges facing women in the Middle East workforce

Opinion - The region needs more inclusive leaders, but female workers also need to ask for what they want.

Challenges facing women in the Middle East workforce
Juggling act: More companies allow flexible working arrangements.

Despite changes to social perceptions and policies that support women in employment over the past few decades, the participation rate of women in the labor force in the region is still low. There isn’t a lack of female talent, but not enough women in the Middle East are in senior positions.

The fact is, employers still overlook or underleverage a significant pool of people who are ready, willing and able to help them meet the shortage of talent in their particular geographies.

EY’s recent report ‘Tapping into the talent of our women in the Middle East’ identified three major challenges that women face in the workplace: visible barriers, hidden barriers and external and societal pressures.

Both mentoring and sponsorship have a strong role to play in the development of women, but recent research suggests that women can be over-mentored and under-sponsored.

Mentoring is what happens when you are present in the room; but sponsorship is what happens when your voice is being represented without your presence. The role of sponsor is to help remove any roadblocks, and to intervene and influence on behalf of the employee. Sponsors can leverage their personal and organisational authority to hold line management accountable for retaining, guiding and supporting an employee towards a senior leadership position.

When it comes to flexible working such as working from home, the availability of these options can be inconsistent, particularly in client-facing roles, which can prove challenging. In the past, the perception was that formal flexible working (reduced hours) is just a benefit for working mothers. Over the last five years, there has been a considerable push to shift the mindset from traditional beliefs about presenteeism (people being seen in the office) and long hours to more flexible ways of working. However, the concern still remains among employees (both male and female) that companies will see them as less committed to their role if they aren’t always in the office.

Too often, the gender agenda is focused only on women and the events that are convened to discuss the challenges facing women don’t involve men. The gender agenda is about men and women and, in many geographies, where the leadership is dominated by men, the responsibility lies with men to help lead it.

There is a definite need for inclusive leaders in the Middle East, who can leverage the diversity of views and value the difference of both genders – leaders who can commit to creating change versus maintaining the status quo.

Interacting with clients can pose a variety of challenges that vary across the Middle East. Quite often, women can feel that some client interactions are not socially acceptable, particularly if the interactions are solely with other men.

Another key external societal challenge for women is the need to balance work and family care responsibilities. Women in the Middle East face societal pressure to prioritise being a wife and mother over their careers. Having said that, with the right support in place, both at work and at home, this issue is becoming less challenging, particularly in workplaces that encourage flexible working arrangements.

Regardless of the challenges that women may face, there is still the need for women to take responsibility for negotiating what they want and working with their employer to achieve their goals. A key question that all women in the workplace need to ask themselves is: have I asked my employer for what I want? Quite often, the answer is no.

Yasmeen Muhtaseb, MENA Diversity and Inclusiveness Partner Sponsor, EY