"The problem with stereotypes," writes Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Travelling to the airport from the Palm, Dubai, last year, still buzzing from India Global Forum’s second UAE-India Summit; Adichie’s words surfaced to my consciousness. There is a certain humility and even satisfaction at being proved wrong, and I admit that the UAE has proved me wrong.
I arrived with a blinkered vision with little expectation of meeting many women in leadership positions. It was the first time we hosted the WomenIN Forum, driven by the need to make the discussion around inclusivity more inclusive i.e getting men involved in solving for greater workplace inclusivity. The subject of women empowerment and gender parity always draws mixed reactions from the corporate world, often viewed as a task to get through on a to-do list. So, the pressure was on to set the right note.
How do we convince top business leaders to attend our first WomenIN Forum? How do we make a case for women leadership being the smart thing to do? But a bigger underlying fear was - is UAE the right place to do this? It undoubtedly was and is.
UAE and India are a testament to Adichie’s warning about buying into one story. Beyond the preconceptions of that one story of a patriarchal society breathe two countries that are taking active steps to make a difference. The UAE that takes well-being at work so seriously that it has a ministerial portfolio dedicated to Happiness, while India galvanised G20 leaders to agree to the creation of a Working Group on the empowerment of women to support the G20 Women’s Ministerial.
I also had the opportunity to meet legion of leaders, both men and women, who are passionate about promoting inclusive workplaces, with more women leaders in decision-making roles.
Mariam bin Mohammed Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment and Reem Bint Ebrahim Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Cooperation, UAE along with Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s Finance Minister and Smriti Irani, Minister of Women and Child Development come to mind. All four represent diverse portfolios and knowledge, refusing to be hindered by myopic views on their age, gender or appearance. But equally, names like Rola Abdul Maneh, CEO of Standard Chartered, Reem Baggash, Deputy Managing Director, World Governments Summit Organisation, Ananya Birla – the scion of one of India’s largest conglomerates and an artist and entrepreneur in her own right, Ankita Vashishtha who set up a VC designed to back women entrepreneurs matter. These women along with equally influential figures like Megan Gregonis, US consul General in Dubai, continue to champion equitable societies and workplaces. They provide men and women with positive role models and inspiration to aspire beyond the stereotypes that society, both Eastern and Western, has thrust upon them.
We can’t continue to affect this change though when one-half of society – women - battle burnout. Most are driven by a structural framework that presses the responsibility of being primary caregivers, household managers and successful professionals simultaneously. The clarion call that women can do it all skews the gender equality debate. A society where women have to do it all single-handedly is both unbalanced and dysfunctional.
The stats are there to prove it. The latest Deloitte survey of 5,000 working women across 10 countries alarmingly found more women left their jobs in the past year than in 2020 and 2021 combined quoting burnout and lack of flexibility. While a recent LinkedIn survey on working women in India revealed that 9 in 10 working women had to take a pay cut to work flexibly, with a significant portion of women showing hesitance to disclose their flexible work arrangements to clients, colleagues, and friends due to guilt and stigma.
In 2022, the year I found my perceptions around inclusivity and women's leadership challenged, was also the year the world saw a new phenomenon called the “Great Resignation.” This phenomenon saw several women, largely in the West, resign from top leadership positions stating burnout. Come 2023, we are still facing the after-effects on the leadership pipeline, with fewer diverse leadership teams in place.
Now, more than ever, we need an equitable society. It is an economic need as we fight a wave of global inflation making the current and younger generation question basic aspirations such as buying their first house or starting a family. It is an academic need as we travel to Mars, on the strength of a team of mostly women scientists. And it is a social need as fathers yearn to play a more active role in raising their children and mothers dream of pursuing dreams they once dreamt as little girls.
India Global Forum (IGF) has consistently been at the forefront of championing women's causes, recognising the pivotal role gender equality and inclusivity play in social and economic progress. With a commitment to providing a platform for dialogue, exchange of ideas, and collaborative efforts, WomenIN Forum, a key initiative by IGF, has made substantial strides in inspiring women to aspire. As Manoj Ladwa, CEO, IGF, aptly puts it, "Our mission is to provide a global platform that empowers both women and men to challenge stereotypes, and help unleash the potential of every individual, whatever their background."
Hence, IGF’s Middle East and Africa Summit (26-29 November) 2023 focusses on ‘Unleashing Ambitions’, and the WomenIN Forum’s core theme is ‘Inspiring to Aspire.’ For inspiration is so important. How else can we dare to aim for the stars without being shown that the sky is the limit? How else can the horizons of our perception be challenged to expand and embrace newer, bolder possibilities and potential? How else can we unleash our ambitions?
The author is the Senior Programmer Manager at IGF. IGF’s Middle East and Africa 2023: Unleashing Ambitions will be held from 26 – 29 Nov in Dubai. To know more, visit www.indiaglobalforum.com