A lot has been said repeatedly about gender biases creeping into hiring, pay and promotions. What's needed is more action. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The importance of having women in leadership positions has been an impassioned topic for years, but it has become more relevant than ever. Zooming in on the MENA region, just 19 per cent of MENA’s labour force is made up of women, the lowest globally. A PwC analysis show that increasing the number of women in the workforce to match the male employment rate ‘could increase the GDP by 57 per cent, or as much as $2 trillion’.

A 2020 report by McKinsey tabled its findings as to why MENA women continue to be held back, highlighting that they experienced ‘significant challenges at work, including limited interactions with senior colleagues, inadequate support from co-workers, and a lack of exposure to key role models’. Other indisputable, albeit generalised, inhibitors include cultural and social norms, the burden of childcare and entrenched gender roles, low wages, and gender-related biases in hiring.

Such findings, no doubt, are a wake-up call. There is work to be done in the boardroom; alas, we ignore women’s crucial place at our peril. How best do we encourage more women to return to the job, or, in some cases, enter the workplace for the first time? More importantly, how do we simultaneously encourage and support them on their way to the top?

Flexible work arrangements

There’s no question that one of the first steps in creating workplaces that invite and retain women is to provide flexible work arrangements, which we are all familiar with post-COVID-19. The ‘Harvard Business Review’s’ findings that offering flexible work arrangements was positively associated with lower turnover rates, particularly among female employees, will come as no great surprise.

Diversity and inclusion

Employers not prioritising actual diversity and inclusion (outside of buzzwords) are not doing their companies or employees justice. This means fostering a culture where not just women, but all gender identities and ethnicities feel welcome, valued, and respected, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.

Previous insights have revealed that women leaders were more likely to take public stands on ethical issues such as gender and racial equity, and are more likely to mentor and sponsor other women, particularly women of colour. Not only that, they were also champions of employee-friendly policies that fostered an inclusive workplace, and encouraged the recruitment and retention of female talent.

Training, mentorship and networking

It is no secret that customised education and training programs help women acquire new skills, and updating existing ones are vital to their success. There are countless opportunities to nurture these processes, including offering employees ongoing access to internal and external training, conferences, workshops, roundtables, and networking events.

Work-life balance

According to the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, millennials (both women and men) are making a stand to prioritise personal lives over career advancement. Unlike their predecessors, the study found that only one-fifth of millennials wanted to further their careers if it meant having to sacrifice on the life side of the equation.

That said, as proposed by Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at NYU, “We can only change norms if we have collective policies that apply to everybody and that we all agree on and that people use. And that’s how norms begin to change.”

In a nutshell, we need to work together.

Pay gap

Women continue to face a significant pay gap, with women in the US earning just 83 cents on the dollar in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau. To address this, companies should be conducting regular pay equity audits and take steps to close any pay gaps. It is without question that employers should similarly be providing equal benefits, including health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits, to ensure that women are adequately supported both professionally and personally.

Creating workplaces that invite and retain women requires a holistic approach that addresses the unique challenges that women face in the workplace. Employers must ensure all these critical steps to effectively attract, recruit and retain talented women.

It is our job to reconfigure the bedrock of the global workplace, if we are serious about creating greater prosperity within our families, organisations, and nations alike.