Explainer: How companies in Middle East approach diversity, equality and inclusion?
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Explainer: How companies in Middle East approach diversity, equality and inclusion?

Explainer: How companies in Middle East approach diversity, equality and inclusion?

Current efforts are not limited to just hiring, but also include investing in developing female talent to build up diverse pipelines, opines Maliha Jilani, member of the global social impact practice and partner at Heidrick & Struggles (Dubai)

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Why is diversity, inclusion and equality (DI&E) important to the economy?
Increasing the diversity of the workforce by boosting female labour participation will likely improve the region’s competitiveness. Access to a wider talent pool will help to fill gaps in industries like technology, while the inclusion of more varied and diverse perspectives can be key for businesses to thrive and survive in the current landscape.

Many studies have shown that diversity drives innovation and the development of new solutions, so welcoming more women to the workforce will strengthen the region’s competitive position.

How are businesses and companies in the Middle East approaching DI&E?
One big advantage the Middle East has is a rich cultural footprint. With various markets welcoming expatriates to the talent pool, we’re already fortunate to leverage the diversity that comes from different nationalities and experiences. As for gender diversity, we’re seeing more company-led efforts and initiatives. This includes flexible working arrangements and maternity policies that encourage and support women to enter, stay, and return to the workforce.

International, as well as local companies in the Middle East are increasingly building gender equality into their hiring and promotion process. Unconscious bias training is also being implemented. Additionally, more companies are paying attention to planning for the future. Current efforts are not limited to just hiring, but also include investing in developing female talent to build up diverse pipelines.

Diversity, equality and inclusion efforts must be driven at the top and it’s promising to note that many boards are putting female representation high on the agenda and taking steps to nurture women in their workforce. It’s likely that we’ll see this trajectory continue as organisations strive toward balancing their teams with more diversity.

What are the challenges impacting DI&E in regional organisations?
One of the challenges that we see both in the region and the global landscape is developing women to grow and take on senior positions. While there is a relatively strong pipeline of female talent available, their participation substantially decreases higher up the ranks. So, what we need to do is identify ways to keep women in the workforce, enabling them to grow in their careers.

This is where mentorship can play an important role, providing women with supportive female leaders that they can look up to as role models to learn from. And beyond mentorship, promising female talents will also benefit from sponsorship.

Essentially, having advocates who will represent their voices and influence change on their behalf. To grow the female talent pool and effectively help them rise to the C-suite, the combination of mentorship, sponsorship and female role models will be critical to ensuring they are visible at every level.

What tools can you use to practice diversity and equality in an organisation?
Incorporating diversity and equality into an organisation’s DNA is not a straightforward task. There are four principles that form an effective framework to promote DI&E in an organisation.

1. Purposeful leadership: Leaders must connect efforts to strategic business priorities and outcomes. The executive leadership team plays the most important part to lead, role model, and be key sponsors of the DI&E efforts.

2. Personal change: Leaders may need to address blind spots and change some personal behaviour to foster an inclusive culture. For example, being part of an employee resource group that an executive does not immediately identify with can be a great way for the leader to get insight into the experience of underrepresented employees.

3. Broad engagement: Leaders should quickly engage the entire organisation by role modelling and encouraging new ways of behaviour that will create a sense of belonging for all.

4. Systemic alignment: Across levels, inadvertent systemic preferences and biases, and non-inclusive practices and policies must be identified and removed.

How can companies in the region speed up the process of being more diverse and inclusive?
While progress has been made over the years to improve gender diversity in the Middle East through company-led initiatives and also through government mandates (For example, in 2021, the UAE Security and Commodities Authority issued a mandate that listed companies must have at least one woman on their board of directors) for the region to truly achieve diversity, there is more work to be done.

Organisations need to commit to more inclusive practices to empower women with the time and opportunity to join or return to the workforce and be able to commit to upskilling programmes. For example, according to McKinsey’s Women at Work Middle East report, the lack of access to childcare can hinder women from working after becoming mothers as they are often the primary family caregiver.

Additionally, PwC’s 2022 survey on MENA Women in Work reveals that 94 per cent of women prioritise work-life balance and training and development opportunities. Hence, it’s clear that to attract and retain capable women, organisations need to set the tone of promoting diversity from the top of the organisation, embed diversity and inclusion strategies throughout the organisation, and hold the management accountable for delivering on these strategies.

This includes efforts to provide a supportive environment and facilities for women in the office, implementing flexible/remote work arrangements, enhancing support for childcare or eldercare, and of course, creating structured mentorship and training programmes to support female professionals as they grow and advance in their careers.

If the private and public sector each continue to do their part and drives efforts to improve female representation, the expanded talent pool and increased diversity will undeniably contribute to a more resilient Middle East economy.

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