There is still much to be done to bring about a perfect equation in gender parity. Setting clear mandates, such as removing disparity in men and women pay scales within UAE's private sector, will help. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Gender imbalance isn’t just another challenge that companies need to overcome, it’s arguably the greatest threat facing all industries today.

In 2015, the UAE government took the bold step to set itself targets to become one of the world’s Top 25 countries for gender equality. By 2019, it was in the 26th position in the UNDP Gender Equality Index, making it the highest ranked Arab country. And last month, a new law ensuring equal pay for men and women in the private sector came into effect.

This is a significant step in the efforts towards female empowerment. October 11 is marked by the United Nations as the International Day of the Girl Child dedicated to advancing the rights and empowerment of girls everywhere. As a woman who works in the traditionally male-dominated technology sector, empowerment of women, especially in the tech sector, is a cause I hold close to my heart. Over the years, it has become obvious to me that starting with the younger generation is half the battle won.

Nipped too early

Globally, female representation gets lost at every stage of the talent pipeline, from early education and grade school, to higher education and entry-level positions, to management and leadership. Women - and girls - are leaving the talent pipeline, often before they have the chance to excel. For the tech industry, it has become clear that if companies are going to keep them in the tech ecosystem, they need to embrace diversity and inclusion.

This doesn’t just mean welcoming more women into the workforce — it means changing the workplace culture from the ground up so that these women know they’re seen, heard and valued. Interestingly, stats from the UAE Gender Balance Council show that 56 per cent of the UAE’s graduates in STEM courses at government universities are women.

Keep engaging

So how can companies cultivate inclusion, create change and transform the tech sector’s greatest threat into its greatest opportunity? The answer is ensuring that women stay engaged with the technology ecosystem across their entire education and career journey. Here are a few ways we can ensure this becomes a reality:

Create new opportunities in STEM education: Around the world, girls are exceeding boys on two fronts: they’re getting better grades in high school and, for the most part, they’re entering higher education in greater numbers. However, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is still an outlier to this trend, largely because of cultural biases and social expectations that associate these disciplines with men.

We need to help beginners build confidence, cultivate a community of supportive peers and ensure family members and teachers are encouraging progress. It is also crucial to ensure access to technology and computing experiences, and create continuity between them. By guaranteeing these opportunities, companies can nurture the top talent that will keep them growing for years to come.

Eliminate biases in recruitment and retention: As women continue to enter the workforce, they are facing a number of barriers driven by unconscious bias. From exclusionary language in job postings to culturally prescribed notions of what “male” and “female” positions entail, unconscious bias works in subtle ways — and it carries a heavy price tag.

The value of setting up mentors, sponsors and role models: Providing high-potential candidates with a clear path to leadership and having diverse representation among a company’s senior ranks paves the way for others to follow. Organizations can invest in mentorship and create programs that give women opportunities to work with coaches and gain new skills.

While mentorship is great, sponsorship is proving to be a gamechanger, as it introduces women to networks of advocates who will champion their career advancement and actively nominate them for new opportunities.

Empower women to not only be leaders, but founders: The career journey for female tech talent comes full circle when women become entrepreneurs and start their own tech businesses. This is why we need to combat entrenched biases and barriers that exist in the funding and venture capital ecosystem.

Female venture capitalists are often likelier to extend opportunities to female entrepreneurs, not because they’re playing favorites, but because time and time again, women have proven to be a good asset.

Companies can drive this change by setting concrete goals around diversity and inclusion. They can also create an internal culture that builds understanding around unconscious biases and overcomes gender stereotypes. Leaders need to be held accountable for achieving the targets they set, and any progress or lack thereof needs to be publicly shared.

As we look to build a talent pipeline that will last us until 2030 and beyond, organizations and investors truly hold the balance of power in determining whether we’ll be successful — and it all comes down to diversity and inclusion.

- Haidi Nossair is Senior Director - Client Solutions Group for MERAT territory at Dell Technologies.