The gender gap will remain until opinions change

Closing the gender gap requires ensuring that women are supported at home and throughout their careers. (Silvia Razgova /The National)
Closing the gender gap requires ensuring that women are supported at home and throughout their careers. (Silvia Razgova /The National)

Women in the Middle East continue to lag behind men on pay and career development, just like they do in many other parts of the world, according to a new study. This is not surprising, but societies around the world need a huge cultural shift if they are to address this properly and that can hardly occur overnight.

But recognition of the issue is a good start because it can help bring about policy changes in many countries, including the UAE, where the government has supported women’s entry into the workplace and participation in the development of the country. As a result, society is now more encouraging to ambitious women than, let’s say, three decades ago.

In addition to their work, most women are also wives and mothers and shoulder the responsibility of caring for their children. Those who don’t like the idea of handing on their responsibilities to nannies or maids often work until they have children and then leave – and are unlikely to return to the workplace until their children are settled in school.

Such challenges continue to be seen only as “women’s issues”, despite the huge effects they have on society as a whole, including the increasing dependence on domestic workers and the cultural cost that comes with it. One could even argue that the higher divorce rate is the inevitable consequence of many women failing to balance work and home.

Therefore, to address the problem we need first to look at it as an issue for society as a whole and not as a separate issue that only concerns women.

The government’s efforts to introduce a quota for women in executive positions is only useful if it leads to a shift in decisions affecting women’s work flexibility, promotion and retention.

Women in leadership positions should understand other women’s needs and introduce flexible measures to accommodate working mothers. Otherwise, the quota system will only have a marginal influence on the lives of many women in lower positions.

But while quotas are a good step, it should be supplemented by family-friendly policies, such as more generous maternity leave, workplace-sponsored nurseries and organisational flexibility to support women.

Quota targets should be made public, with progress reported annually, to ensure that public and private organisations alike are following up with the government’s guidelines in regard to the number of women at board and in senior executive level.

But this is not enough. It’s not until men themselves start to look at this as an issue that affects them, as it affects their mothers, wives and sisters, that discrimination in the workplace will lessen.

Even though discrimination in the workplace is less visible nowadays, it exists, as many women still confirm. Women are still expected to be as committed to their work as men and then go home and lead a full family life.

Research at the Centre for Gender in Organisations at Simmons College in Boston explained this as “second generation gender bias,” by which women are still unconsciously judged against standards developed in male-dominated work settings.

Unconsciously, many men – sometimes even women – in leadership positions don’t consider women’s family needs when evaluating their work commitment and performance.

This is unfair on women, especially for those who try hard to balance their work and home responsibilities while being challenged by inflexible working hours.

If such a situation persists, family responsibilities should be re-evaluated. The cultural shift should go beyond the acceptance of women’s changing role in society from stay-at-home mothers to changing men’s attitudes towards domestic work. If women are not offered full support at the workplace, they can at least find support at home. Childcare should be accepted into the set of things that men do along with women.

It’s important to recognise men’s role in the process of change. Men need to take equal responsibility for the promotion of women’s deserved rights, at home and in the workplace and at the top and the bottom of the income scale, for the sake of families and for the sake of the labour market.

Equality in the workplace will never be achievable without equality at home. Such a goal can hardly be reached by official legislation. The question is, can we make that cultural shift?

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui

Published: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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