From #MeToo to Time’s Up, gender equality has undoubtedly been the center of focus in recent years. And the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the power imbalances entrenched in today’s society even more. We’ve seen how many women have recently felt obligated to take on a larger share of household and childcare responsibilities, often resulting in a difficulty to separate their work and family lives as lockdowns continue.
This was just one of the important issues raised during “How Women Rise: Influential Women in Middle East Finance,” a recent conversation sponsored by Bloomberg that featured senior female leaders from some of the Gulf’s leading financial institutions. The virtual exchange was part of “A Fair Share,” the company’s G.C.C. gender initiative, which promotes egalitarianism in the financial industry and aims to help women climb the corporate ladder.
“The pandemic has upended the lives of women across the globe. Many working mothers have been hit with the double whammy of holding down their jobs and dealing with childcare and schooling,” panel moderator Zainab Fattah, said. “While many of us hope that the pandemic will be short-lived, its long-term repercussions may be severe, on women’s advancement within various industries, as well as on their ability to earn a living.”
Fattah, a Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News, went on to share some significant findings from a recent study carried out by management consulting firm McKinsey. The research shows working mothers are three times more likely than working fathers to be handling the majority of the housework during COVID-19. Additionally, the study found a quarter of women are considering scaling back their career goals or even leaving the workforce entirely as a result of the extra demands created by the pandemic. What’s more, as Fattah noted, these trends could bring existing efforts to advance gender equality in the workplace to a standstill. Women only hold a small minority of top leadership roles, and the disparity is even more acute in the Middle East.
The Good News: Various Companies Are Committed to Championing Women
Thankfully, several companies in the Middle East are striving to alleviate the burden on their female employees. “At Citi, we are mindful of the challenges that women are facing during the pandemic, for instance, taking care of their families, homeschooling, and household chores,” Carmen Haddad, another panelist said. “This is an opportunity for us to enact change and look at flexibility [policies] for women,” the Vice Chair of the Middle East & Chief Country Officer of Saudi Arabia at Citi, added.
Meanwhile, fellow panelist Farah Foustok, the Chief Executive Officer of Lazard Gulf Limited, underscored the importance of empathy during these trying times. “Compassion is critical at this point. At Lazard, we have started conducting mental health workshops for employees, and we encourage mentoring and one-on-one engagement to really understand [each individual’s] problems,” she said. “The fact that employees are able to share their issues and challenges has really helped a lot.”
Beyond COVID-19, companies are attempting to promote gender equity on a wider scale. Haddad said while a lot still needs to be done in the region, there has been an essential shift in the way people think about female empowerment and inclusion. Fortunately, some firms are building gender equality into the hiring and promotion process. “At Citi, we are really focused on equal pay, equal promotion, and having equal voices at every table,” the Vice Chair said. “Last year, for instance, 10 out of the 19 employees promoted to director-level positions in the Middle East and Africa were women. We also ensure that our graduate programme intake comprises 50 percent female candidates.”
Bloomberg, the world's primary distributor of financial data and a top news provider, is also dedicated to advancing women in the workplace through internal and external schemes. These include the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index, which tracks the financial performance of public companies that have demonstrated their commitment to the cause. The index intends to build a compelling business case for gender equality. The company is also planning to hold more knowledge-sharing sessions across the Gulf in the coming months as part of its “A Fair Share” plan. Foustok underscored women can provide solutions to the problems that are found in the workplace. “By employing and empowering female talent, you will only enhance your business’s performance,” she said.
Doing It for Ourselves
While such workplace practices are important, women also need to be responsible for their own success, which initially starts with some self-belief. Wafa Ahmad Alqatami, who sits on the Board of Directors at the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce, said women shouldn’t keep schtum about their advancement dreams. “If you want to assume more responsibility or think that you deserve a higher position, you should fight for your right,” the panelist said.
Wafa Ahmad Alqatami
Haddad is of the same mind and touched on the importance of mapping out our own career paths. She advised against relying on other people to manage vocational planning. “Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and put your hand up when you see something wrong. Grab every opportunity and say yes to things that might take you out of your comfort zone,” she said.
However, while moving up the career ladder is undoubtedly important, women should not feel forced to make it their number one priority. “At the end of the day, check in on your happiness index. Women work exceedingly hard, but we all need balance as human beings,” Haddad added. Ultimately, it’s all about identifying our success in our own terms, whether it’s in the workplace or otherwise.