It’s no secret that diversity is a key driver of innovation. Numerous global studies have shown that the more diverse and inclusive an organisation, the more innovative, creative, and ultimately profitable that organisation will be.
And in today’s increasingly challenging business environment, being more profitable and innovative is critical for success.
“The evidence that greater diversity improves commercial performance is well-established,” Norma Taki, Inclusion and diversity leader at PwC Middle East, tells Business Chief. “Diversity in the workplace plays an integral role in driving business sustainability and improving its financial performance.”
Norma says that by gathering alternative perspectives from a diverse workforce, people from different backgrounds, perspectives, genders, experience, and skillsets, organisations can improve problem-solving and drive scientific innovation.
“By having a workforce that better represents consumers, businesses are better able to respond to customer needs and demands.”
In particular, the inclusion of women, both in the workforce and in leadership is vital. “Without gender parity in the workplace, including across leadership, innovation will exclude the needs of half of the population,” Norma says.
“Increasing gender diversity will expand and enrich the talent pool bringing different backgrounds and experiences to businesses, adding fresh insight and creative thinking.”
Increasing representation of women in teams and in leadership
And in the Middle East and Africa, a region yet to reap the full potential of women in the workforce, increased gender representation could unleash huge economic opportunities for business, says Norma.
“Tapping into the potential of the next generation of female workers and leaders will unlock a whole new wave of economic opportunities in the region.”
Research from PwC’s MENA Women in Work Survey finds that by bringing female employment rate on par with men, the region could witness a massive GDP hike of 57%, or as much as US$2 trillion.
Female participation in the workforce across MENA currently stands at between 20-40% for most countries, with the Gulf countries ranking highest and Egypt and Jordan lowest.
“Women in the workforce have historically been underrepresented, however there has been a shift in recognising the value that women bring to organisations and young MENA women are more likely than ever before to be in work.”
Norma says the greatest advances in labour force participation in recent years have been achieved in GCC countries, particularly the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
“Today, gender diversity on boards is gaining focus across the region and gaining a place on the corporate agenda. Active steps are being taken to increase female representation at all levels of an organisation.”
Norma points to female participation in senior leadership as especially important in driving diversity in the region – as female leaders inspire the younger generation to aim for leadership positions.
PwC’s Women in Work report highlights that young female talent are motivated and encouraged by the availability of female role models at senior levels; however, just 72% of the women interviewed feel that there is adequate female representation at senior levels.
“From our focus group discussions, many women spoke about wanting to emulate female role models and in turn inspire other women, including their daughters, to follow in their footsteps,” says Norma.
“Grooming women for leadership and creating a more diverse leadership pipeline is critical to creating more gender-balanced leadership teams, which in turn, encourage participation by young women.”
Measures organisations should take to improve gender equality in the workplace
So, what steps should regional organisations take to attract, retain and elevate women in the workplace?
Norma points to a leadership commitment ‘tone from the top’ as crucial, and says businesses should invest the necessary time and resources to establish a brand and corporate profile that champions diversity, to both attract and retain female talent.
This must also be backed by action throughout the organisation, with diversity KPIs set to measure change in areas such as parental leave and equal career progression opportunities, and incentivise organisational change.
“KPIs and targets should be developed for all senior leaders and managers that measure their progress in supporting young women to advance their careers against clearly defined metrics at each stage of their career path,” she says. “Leaders and managers need to be held accountable to ensure that everyone plays their role.”
Norma says embedding equitable workplace policies and practices that focus on helping women overcome the barriers they face are especially crucial, and these should support women throughout their career lifecycle, including women who go on career breaks and want to later return to work.
“Many of our Women in Work MENA survey respondents feared that they would return to lower-paid roles after maternity leave, a phenomenon referred to as the ‘Motherhood Penalty’.
Norma points to sponsorship and mentoring programmes as ways organisations can offer tailored support and equal access to opportunities that enable women to grow.
Some 85% of women surveyed by PwC said ‘returnship’ programmes were one of the top three factors that would encourage them to go back to work after a career break.
“By easing the transition back to work through networking opportunities and skills support, returnships can help women regain their confidence and professional self-belief,” says Norma.
Measures such as gender pay gap analysis can help to diagnose this and help guide targeted interventions to achieve pay parity. Increasing paternity leave politics would also support new mothers while changing attitudes towards the onus of parenthood falling on women, says Norma.
Flexible working hours, and the ability to work remotely, along with a good work-life balance are also highly desirable for women especially.
“Companies should address these needs, for example, by training managers to spot signs of stress and burnout such as consistent late-night work, evidence of exhaustion and lack of motivation,” says Norma.
“Female employees should be offered support through counselling, rebalancing workloads or encouraging wellbeing practices.”
Norma suggests companies create pipelines of female talent they can tap into, both via educational institutes and those returning to the workplace.
“Employers, policymaker and academic and training institutions should collaborate to identify skills needs and training curricula that can be targeted towards women to ensure that they develop future-ready skills,” says Norma. “Building on the successful drive to boost the number of young women studying STEM subjects inuniversity, employers can also create local pipelines of female talent who can join companies directly after graduation and jump-start their careers.”
She also advises organisations to maintain connections with a talent database of women on career breaks as potential returnees
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