Every year, on various occasions, people honour the contributions of women in society. This March, the world observed International Women’s Day under the theme ‘Choose to Change’, a message that is pertinent to the GCC region, given our socio-economic goals.
In Arab societies, women have always played a pivotal role, not only as nurturers and caregivers but as drivers of growth and innovation. The world’s first university was established by an Arab woman named Fatima Al Fihri, who was Tunisian and founded the Al Qarawiyyin Mosque and University in Fez, Morocco in 859AD. The university even today serves millions of students and is still used as a template for institutions of higher education.
Of course, there are innumerable contemporary examples as well, from the renowned architect, the late Zaha Hadid to Dr Hayat Sindi, a trailblazer in medical testing and biotechnology. And this past year, Omanis celebrated the first public appearance of our First Lady, Sayyida Ahad bint Abdullah bin Hamad Al Busaiyidah, who articulated the crucial part women play in building, strengthening and supporting familial and societal institutions.
There is no doubt about the capabilities of Arab women. They possess the talent, drive and intelligence to propel our region to new heights. However, there is room for systemic improvements and to enable them in multiple ways to achieve their full potential and help strengthen our region.
According to the United Nations, women’s empowerment is key to achieving gender parity and thus helping nations progress. The economic empowerment of women and the closing of gender gaps is also crucial to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
It is established that economies grow faster with a high percentage of women in the workforce. Conversely, gender gaps cost an economy up to 15 per cent of its gross domestic product.
One crucial factor to draw more women in to economic activity is education. The region has come a long way and women are increasingly opting for advanced scientific degrees. But there is still a sizable gap between education and employment. Women make up half of the GCC’s population. And yet, according to the World Bank, in 2018, they accounted for a mere 20.3 per cent of the regional workforce – just over half of the global average of 39 per cent. Clearly, we need to see where we are falling short, and adopt measures that enable as many women as possible to join the workforce.
According to the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), having higher percentages of women in an organisation leads to greater overall job satisfaction, boosts employee dedication, generates more meaningful work and decreases burnout rates. It also ensures greater employee engagement as well as retention.
The real question perhaps is, what are women looking for in their employers? How can hiring managers attract qualified women, empower them to reach their professional goals and attain senior leadership positions?
Based on surveys, CCL says that women like to view their work as a 'calling' as opposed to a nine-to-five job. This translates into careers that fit well with all aspects of their lives. For many women, work is a source of motivation and enjoyment. It provides opportunities for growth and a sense of purpose that aligns with their values and ideally, creates space for a healthy work-life balance.
We must encourage women to pursue their natural proclivities and interests in work so that they build their careers and realise their broader goals. Women are drawn to jobs that offer good paid leave, healthcare benefits, paid leadership training, flexibility in schedules and opportunities to grow.
Given the widespread implementation of flexible work schedules that allow employees to work from home, following the outbreak of Covid-19, employers must look at extending flexible solutions for the long term to ensure women stay in the workforce.
It makes sense to have conversations with staff to determine the degree of flexibility that ensures satisfaction and optimal results for all. Without a doubt, the pros of offering flexible work far outweigh the cons. The benefits of allowing minimised commutes are numerous, as are the advantages of ensuring greater autonomy in daily tasks.
Such measures go a long way to boost employee morale, and are consequently advantageous for the employer as this reduces staff turnover and increases people's overall levels of job satisfaction. Flexible work schedules also help women balance responsibilities at home with their professional duties.
Importantly, the private sector needs to relook at childcare options in-house and where possible, invest in creches. Currently, all countries in the GCC region allow women paid maternity leave.
However, their transition back to the workplace should be as seamless as possible and employers should provide solutions and facilities that support new mothers in their new roles and additional responsibilities.
Women veer towards jobs that offer real leadership opportunities and equality within the workplace, CCL noted. This shows how important it is that employers across the GCC re-evaluate their offerings and ensure that female employees receive the same pay and growth opportunities as their male colleagues.
To help as many women as possible to achieve their potential, however, leadership teams at organisations must understand and enable the factors that attract and retain female talent. Doing so will help companies shape balanced workplaces. This in turn will lift societies, boost economies and lead to the growth of our nations.
Mohammed Alardhi is the executive chairman of Investcorp and chairman of Sohar International