In early February, ChapmanCG co-hosted a lively Middle East HR leaders gathering in Dubai with Shangri-La at the company’s luxury hotel in the heart of the city. Regional and Global HR leaders were brought together to discuss ‘’Women in Business and Gender Diversity Across the Middle East’’. Over 30 regional HR leaders attended, and the topic certainly inspired opinion. The key questions throughout included ‘where does gender diversity stand today in the Middle East’, and ‘is progress actually possible in the future?’ This was a complex topic and some of the views expressed are summarised below.

Understanding the Playing Field

Look at the Middle East and you see a tapestry of countries with varying opinions and deep-seated views about women. It was agreed amongst the group that the Middle East region with its religious, cultural and historical perspectives provides a unique backdrop for the workplace. Many of the group had lived and worked in Europe, the US and Asia, and all felt that the Middle East has a very individual set of scenarios for HR leaders around the potentially polarising topic of gender diversity.

In this region, it seems particularly challenging to change the conversation on this issue and it can be very difficult to find consistency in the treatment of women in business. However, it does feel like things are changing and it is vital to consider the diversity of the region.

Start With the Business Case

It never hurts to sell the benefits of a diverse team. Even if it just gets the conversation started, then it is worth doing. There has been plenty of research conducted to show the power of diversity, and we know that teams with diverse backgrounds can outperform a more uniform group with similar backgrounds. To show this will work, it does require a certain amount of courage, and also for HR to step up and guide the business.

Within the sales and product areas, it seems that the scales have tipped. It is relatively easy to educate business leaders on the need for female talent when the consumer and end-user is a woman, which justifies employing women to interpret and predict what the consumer wants.

But can this work for all businesses? Unfortunately not, although if there is a link between the consumer group and the ability for gender to help the sales revenue, don’t miss it.

Develop Women, Not Roles

One female leader said that part of the complexity can come from the fact that women are generally not as good at self promotion as their male counterparts. They have a tendency to think that working hard will get them promoted, rather than ‘playing the political game’. This is a hot topic globally, thanks in large part to Sheryl Sandberg and her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which states, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

The message in the meeting was clear: coach and develop female leaders, but make sure you don’t set them up to fail. Opening a new role to create diversity and/or over-promoting a woman into roles does not solve the problem. Put the time in, rather than taking a short cut, and in the long run it will pay dividends.

As one female HR leader put it, ‘’Who wants to get something they haven’t earned? That is more likely to demotivate me.’’

Availability of Female Talent: Lessons from Emiratisaton?

To enable gender equality there is a factor that can’t be forgotten. There has to be a pipeline of qualified talent to prevent the feeling of a hire becoming a ‘quota’ number. There is a similar challenge in the Middle East already—Emiratisation. Companies are driven by the need to have a certain quota of Emirati nationals within the ranks, which means companies need to work harder to attract and also retain their Emirati talent.

Is it any different for women? Yes and no. Opening the pipeline of talent is the first step, but you also need to have equality to allow the flow of talent into opportunities.

Get Creative

HR Leaders have got creative in the face of many challenges, including this one. One employer converted a Saudi Arabian factory from a fully male to a fully female workforce, and the productivity levels actually exceeded the original male factory.

How did she do it? She noticed there was a willing female workforce. Divorced Saudi women wanted to work but needed transport as they could not drive themselves. Providing transport and enabling this group, rather than accepting the status quo, meant increased profitability.

How can HR leaders begin to bridge the gender diversity gap in the Middle East?

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Our host for the session was Debbie Cross, VP HR with Shangri-La who recently relocated to Dubai from Hong Kong. Debbie shared, “This is a hot topic for us as a business, and I have enjoyed the discussion from the group. Having worked across the region for a number of years, it is great to hear how other organisations are looking at initiatives to promote gender diversity, especially at a senior leadership level.’’

Ben Davies, Managing Director for EMEA at ChapmanCG chaired the meeting and was joined by Abby Walters, a Director with ChapmanCG based in Dubai who is responsible for the Middle East practice.