Gender equity and equal pay for men and women in the workforce is not a fairness issue. It’s a smart business strategy that is essential for UAE companies to compete globally for scarce and in-demand highly skilled talent necessary to win in the economy of the future.

The challenge companies face is clear and well documented. When we studied 20 major economies around the world in our “Future of Work” research, we uncovered some startling numbers that should serve as a wake-up call for corporate leadership across the country. Bottom-line, the UAE has as much as $50 billion (Dh183.5 billion) in unrecognised economic output at risk if we don’t fill a gap of more than 110,000 skilled workers by 2030.

We also have a significant gender equality problem in the workplace that could be easily flipped into a strategic economic growth opportunity. Today, women are far too under-represented at the executive level of UAE companies. Korn Ferry data shows women representing only 10 per cent of executive in companies. What’s more problematic is that the roles they are in aren’t positions that are directly linked to revenue and business growth.

They tend to be in supporting cost centres such as human resources and communications which are usually lower paying jobs. That’s why at the executive level in the UAE women are paid on average 15 per cent less than men.

Highly skilled females

This is where smart companies that recognise the untapped potential of a huge segment of the UAE workforce can make a major dent in this looming talent gap and better position them to compete and win in the economy of the future.

If women are in the wrong roles, what should companies be doing to get them into the right roles and increase participation of highly skilled females in executive roles key to future business success? It starts with focusing on the executive feeder pool, conducting talent assessments to identify women already in the company with leadership potential and the ability to develop core skills and competencies that will lead to success in the workplace of the future.

Companies need to proactively seek out and attract top female talent into core business roles that enable them to gain crucial experience that positions them to contribute at higher levels of the organisation and compete for higher leveraged and higher paying jobs. Next comes broadening the experience, learning and professional development opportunities presented to high potential women executives.

Well-structured and orchestrated mobility programmes can contribute greatly to individual development as well as have significant overall business impact. While mobility programmes should be applied across the workforce and are equally important for male and female executives, women tend to have fewer opportunities to participate in these simply because of the roles they are relegated to.

Mobility should be looked at in two ways. The first is done by moving up-and-coming executives across roles and business units that enable them to get a 360-degree view of the business and future growth strategies. The second is about creating international mobility opportunities that enable future leaders to gain, and bring back to the organisation, valuable experience in learning best practices in international business management.

Developing young leaders

This is easier to implement for multinational companies, but UAE entities can look at developing strategic exchange programmes with partners and customers that can serve a dual role of strengthening relationships while developing young leaders. The third area companies should look at to promote better career pathing for women is about reframing executive leadership and C-Suite roles.

Research Korn Ferry conducted with female CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies revealed that many top female executives can point to a critical point in their careers where a company or an individual mentor convinced them that they should be on executive career development paths they previously had not considered.

The UAE has the potential to break new ground in true gender equality in the workplace, but that’s not going to come solely from government regulation. It has to come from private companies leading the charge and recognising that increasing female participation at higher valued executive positions is a smart business strategy for bridging the talent gap and winning in the future of work.

— Harish Bhatia is Regional Director at Korn Ferry Products Mena.