Women's Voice: Why diversity matters in the MENA region - Gulf Business
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Women’s Voice: Why diversity matters in the MENA region

Women’s Voice: Why diversity matters in the MENA region

Businesses in the region must provide women a level playing field and create opportunities for them to progress


The Middle East, like everywhere in the world, has been coping with Covid-19, which has disproportionately impacted women.

An OECD report asserted that the pandemic is a watershed moment for gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and an opportunity to rethink women’s role in the economy and society.

As we recover, we now have a unique opportunity to hit the reset button in all industries – across the board, and across boards. It is time to ask ourselves if we have the balance of the workforce that our world needs – and prepare to do what it takes to get there.

Policy is good for honesty

When it comes to the private sector, more and more firms have diversity and inclusion policies. That is great news, but right now momentum is everything – we need to see companies of all sectors reach out at the grassroots level to create growth pathways for women to contribute their views and value – from entry-level to the top of corporate hierarchy.

Several months ago, I had a conversation with the head of a large bank in the GCC. I listened to her story of how she had joined the bank as a trainee and had come up through the ranks to become the CEO. It is fantastic to see a woman in any part of the world reach that position but even more so in a region like the Middle East. Her hard work, grit and determination aided by the bank’s belief in equality and treating everyone fairly, saw her rise to the top through a well-charted career path.

Bringing in a young, well-educated woman, giving her the opportunities to succeed, giving her the stretch assignments that she needs to climb to the top – this is what all companies in the Middle East need to do.

Forging ahead independently

Of course, millions of women are also going it alone and forging careers as entrepreneurs. The 2020 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) shows that in many parts of the developing world, including the Middle East, women are creating successful entrepreneurial businesses, and they are increasingly commonplace.

The MIWE report also mentions that according to the United Nations, narrowing the gender gap in business ownership will go a long way in allowing women play a role towards helping their economy to rebound post-Covid-19 with stronger, more equitable and sustainable growth. The potential therefore to bridge the divide, where there are only around 6 to 15 female business leaders for every 100 leaders in this region, is huge.

So, what needs to happen in the Middle East?

We need to provide women more choice, better access, enhanced digital tools, improved connections and greater opportunities. As part of its plan to connect one billion people to the digital economy by 2025, Mastercard is placing a direct focus on providing 25 million women entrepreneurs with solutions that can help them grow their businesses through a range of initiatives including funding, mentoring and the development of inclusive technologies.

This work is critically important if we are to address the gender balance – and it is (arguably) needed now more than ever before.

We all know that the region is wildly diverse ethnically, culturally, religiously, and economically. What works in the GCC will not necessarily work in the Levant region or vice versa. We also know that women in the Middle East sometimes face unique and often ingrained cultural challenges.

But one universal truth is that the prominence of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects in the future job market will only rise.

Encouraging girls to engage in and enjoy STEM subjects at school is the first crucial step in creating limitless possibilities for girls.

But here and today, we have work to do in getting businesses in the region to do for all women what that bank did for the CEO I met last year – provide a level playing field, create opportunities to progress, open the doors to success or failure.

Gender diversity wins

The World Bank highlighted that economies across the globe are losing $172 trillion solely due to the differences in lifetime earnings between women and men – a significant increase from the $160 trillion it projected only two years earlier in 2018.

To do this, we need to engage with industry leaders at the very highest level: not to lecture, but to leverage data to demonstrate how gender diversity is good for the bottom line, with better financial returns, as a McKinsey study has shown.

As we search for ways to sweep away the debris of a Covid-induced gender crisis that has set back millions of women, we have a new opportunity to make a case for inclusion and diversity – we have a real opportunity to put the all-male boardroom in the history books.

Now is the time to show every shareholder in the Middle East that diversity matters: because diversity wins.

Ann Cairns is executive vice chair of Mastercard and global chair at 30% Club

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