This article is available in Arabic.
The Middle East has recently witnessed a substantial rise in women taking on leadership roles across different sectors. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the Middle East showed significant progress towards closing the gender gap in 2021.
However, this is happening at a slow pace compared with the rest of the world. Even though women are generally outnumbering men in educational attainment in the region, their active participation in the workforce is lagging behind, especially at the managerial level. Despite countries actively working towards closing the gender gap, less than 18% of managers in the region are women.
And yet, women who are at the forefront of both the political and economic scenes are highly regarded and celebrated, possibly more than in any other region in the world. Is it because they are role models for generations to come, namely in their own countries and in the region? Or because they have been able to accomplish so much in so little time?
In any case, these women are truly setting an example to other women who similarly wish to have an impact in their respective countries and economies. They’re making attainable to a whole gender across many generations something that seemed impossible a few years back . This is a celebration in itself.
And they are similarly leading the way in creating a suitable work environment, where women can prosper and reach their potential without having to compromise in other areas of their life.
According to Forbes’ Middle East’s Power Businesswomen 2021, many of these women have established initiatives aimed at helping their communities, especially in support of women and entrepreneurial efforts. Forbes labelled these power women as leaders who ‘showed resilience, flexibility, and strength in the face of unprecedented adversity, both in the workplace and in their communities’.
So how are these traits materialising? What are women doing differently in the workplace? What improvements have they brought on board for their companies and teams?
A better work-life balance
The work-life balance dynamic poses an initial challenge for these women. Professor Nora Colton, Director of the UCL Global Business School for Health, says: “In the Middle East, women often face more barriers than men regarding societal expectations around work-life balance – life work (family and home) has often been seen as the domain for women, with workplace duties coming last, if at all. The region has the lowest labour force participation rate of women in the world despite high educational attainment rates by women. This paradox is a product of Middle Eastern women traditionally being expected to carry a double load if they undertook work beyond the home.”
“However, recently there have been visible changes, especially in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states where the push to put indigenous populations at the top of the workforce pyramid coupled with increased opportunities for remote and flexible working see Middle Eastern female professionals being more visible,” Colton adds.
Zeina Mhanna, Director at LIFE, a global membership organisation for Lebanese professionals in the diaspora, says: “Men and women define success differently. Instead of viewing positions and money as the only definition of success, women place a high value on the work life balance, having a positive contribution and enjoying the relationship with their co-workers and clients.”
She explains that this doesn’t mean that women don’t value promotions and financial rewards but these are not the only factors to motivate them. “I found women are more likely to change jobs/companies if their work life balance is compromised,” Mhanna says.
Pauline Sawaya, CEO/People & Business Enabler at Swift Shift Coaching, provides another point of view. She states that she does not believe that women are bringing a lot to the front of work life balance. This is because they need to handle the issue on a personal level first, as their upbringing doesn’t allow them to recognise that it can be achieved instead of burning themselves out.
“There is no work life balance per se, there is something that outweighs the other and we are willing to invest more in it. So career women are ready to do whatever it takes to achieve fulfilment and work on improving a better support system that will embrace their ambitions rather than destroy it,” says Sawaya.
Lama Makarem, Co-founder at J&R Business Consultancy, a consultancy and training company in the UAE offering business consultancy services and delivering training programmes for various industries, says: “As women in leadership positions have this ability to empathize, thus understand team members’ needs better, there is more chance for a work life balance, as women, and mainly mothers, try their best to create this balance for themselves.”
More flexibility in the workplace
Janice Robinson Burns, Chief People Officer at Degreed, the workforce upskilling platform for one in three Fortune 50 companies, states: “In companies with remote-first culture or working exclusively from home, there need to be high levels of autonomy so people can fit work around their other commitments and preferences, whether that’s caring for a loved one or creating a workspace that better suits their needs. This is even more the case for companies with employees based globally, the internal efforts need to reflect the different opportunities, challenges, and perspectives of all regions.”
Burns clarifies that employees should be given the freedom to fit their work schedules around family, care and learning commitments, and tailor their work environment to fit their needs and make the company a great place to work no matter the location, while protecting work/life balance and being mindful of different time zones and cultures.
LIFE’s Zeina Mhanna explains that studies have shown that companies offering flexibility have higher employee satisfaction, productivity and retention.
“As we all know the pandemic has changed how companies operate, by accelerating certain trends, and flexibility being one of them. Companies have to become more flexible if they want to become more diverse. Women provide two-thirds more child care than men in developed countries, and you can only imagine how much worse those data are in developing countries and in the Middle East. So if companies don’t become more flexible, they won’t be able to retain women and give them the opportunity to rise to the top. That’s why increasing women in management and boards is a process and does not happen with a click of a button.”
Professor Colton adds that with the rapid expansion of IT infrastructures and remote/online work opportunities for professional women in the region, many women are seizing the moment by blazing a trail of engagement in professional jobs that have anytime, anywhere flexibility. Consequently, the rigid boundaries and workloads that often excluded them from juggling their work and life are being re-thought.
Better team resilience
Ibtehal Fathy, Inclusion & Diversity Officer at Mars, Inc, explains: “Team resilience is so important to cultivate and uphold now more than ever as we work virtually more than physically with our teams, changing our method of communication. Personally, I have both witnessed and benefitted from the importance of supporting women’s physical and mental health. We have expanded our mental-health support via Associate Assistance Program (AAP) in 60 countries, and I cannot stress the importance that all organizations invest in mental-health support.”
Mhanna states that an organisational culture based on support, collaboration, trust, work-life balance, flexibility, stress management and wellbeing (both physical and mental) creates resilient teams, and all these qualities tend to be found and nurtured more broadly by women leaders.
Fathy affirms this: “Inclusion and mental health go hand in hand so building a psychologically safe working environment is key.” She explains that they have also expanded programmes that support women on their leadership journey, such as the award-winning Women Leading Purposefully programme which they expanded globally in 2021.
More empathy towards team members and communities
Lama Makarem says: “Women do bring a totally new dynamic to the workplace on many levels. On personal and interpersonal levels, women by nature possess more empathy towards others. By default, more empathy means better listening skills, and vice versa. This ability to listen and empathise strengthens relationships within the team.”
Zeina Mhanna explains that we are living in an era where it’s all about self-worth and self-confidence, which are definitely important for leaders. However, empathy and humility are as important, if not more so, to create safe environments for team members to be vulnerable, to express themselves, to make mistakes, to contribute and to grow.
“To improve empathy within our business unit, we set up the Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging (DIEB) initiative, aimed at driving change from the bottom-up, with leadership engaged with everything occurring,” Burns says.
This has boosted the company’s diversity and understanding of different experiences across the organisation. For example, continues Burns: ‘Females in leadership roles increased from 25% to 42% in the past year. Among new hires, gender balance has risen as high as 53.5% and diverse ethnic/racial groups has jumped to 34%.”
Ibtehal Fathy says: “Empathy, listening, respect and an appreciation of diverse points of view amongst team members and communities are basic leadership skills we should look for. In the [Mars] ‘Here To Be Heard’ report we found that 71% of women stressed that men play a critical role – either as allies in solutions or as barriers to progress. We piloted a program in supply for male allies, and we will continue to focus on building capabilities in this very critical area.”
Fathy believes that empathy among communities – regardless of age, race or gender – is key to breaking down societal barriers that prevent progress. “At Mars, we support gender-equal learning and, through the expansion our Better Together Fund, we take an active stand to prevent and respond to gender-based violence,” she concludes.
A different leadership style?
Lama Makarem explains that in the past years, through her work experience in the Middle East, she has witnessed a lot of ‘ambition’ from women to enter industries that have mostly been known as male dominant. In terms of management style, she believes that women can handle more than one thing at a time.
“I find projects are more efficiently productive when they’re led by ladies, because they have specific traits of time management and attention to details while still seeing the big picture. Moreover, women have become better leaders by example as they are influencing each other more. In general, women’s management style is more human-to-human than a status-driven style,” she clarifies.
Zeina Mhanna finds it striking how comfortable men are with talking about themselves and their achievements, while women tend to be more reluctant to claim any credit and to make their work visible. She finds that women get less satisfaction from competition and scorekeeping. However, most companies still have systems and performance metrics that are based on how men define success, and that’s the main issue today.
Mhanna adds: “Conflict resolution is another area where women and men differ greatly, with women always eager to find compromises. It’s not about winning, it’s about getting ahead.”
“Companies evaluate women based on criteria that have been set by men. All these systems should be reviewed and adjusted to a more inclusive workplace,” Mhanna concludes.
Swift Shift Coaching’s Pauline Sawaya clarifies that while it is about the person not the gender, in her work with different leaders of both genders across different cultures she noticed that the right qualified women are bringing a lot of firmness yet vulnerability and are shaping the coaching style of leadership. “This all starts with a high sense of self awareness, values and beliefs,” she states.
According to Sawaya: “The leadership style of women is more inclusive and ‘democratic’, as women leaders communicate much more with the team than their male counterparts. This impacts the team that feels more included in the decision-making process, and enhances communication in the workplace.”
She suggests that women bring a new style of leadership that reinforces open channels. A recent MIT research report identified that the higher the proportion of women in the workplace, the better the team results.
Sawaya concludes by stating: “More women at leadership positions will foster better performance and innovative approaches to management.”
Ibtehal Fathy says: “We have been told time and time again that the pandemic has had an immense impact on women in the working world – many have been left without income or are strained by home life. But women have always faced challenges, which is why I think women are so resilient.”
As Professor Colton puts it: “Middle Eastern women today are often seen as entrepreneurs, contributors to national economic and health agendas as well as critical earners for household wealth. As many of these trailblazers are in the GCC region – a region that has historically been seen as the most traditional when it comes to the role of women – important nuances are emerging concerning the space women occupy within society.”