GENDER diversity in the workplace remains a key issue for employers in the GCC region. This is one of the key findings of a new report developed by the Pearl Initiative, the UAE-based business-led non-profit organization, and Sharjah Business Women Council, and launched in collaboration with PepsiCo, in Riyadh.
Four of the region’s leading companies surveyed for the report — General Electric (GE), Olayan Group, PepsiCo and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) — convened at the launch event to discuss the challenges of acquiring and retaining local female talent. The participants also shared best practices for ensuring inclusion and strategies to achieve stronger governance.
The report, titled ‘Women’s Careers in the GCC — Four Good Practice Case Studies’, aligns with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 that sets the ambitious target of increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent. The vision also emphasises the importance of nurturing female talent, and acknowledges women’s significant contribution to the development of Saudi society and economy. According to the Ministry of Education, Saudi women constitute 51.8 percent of the country’s university students.
Speaking at the event, Carla Koffel, Executive Director of the Pearl Initiative, praised Saudi Arabia’s inspirational vision. She added: “In recent years, women in the GCC region have been breaking through the glass ceiling at a growing pace, increasingly taking on top government and private sector jobs. The real challenge now lies in attracting and incentivising the right talent, fostering an organizational culture that will retain them, and providing professional development tools to enable them to climb to top positions in every industry. The private sector plays a pivotal role in driving change. Olayan Group, PepsiCo and GE are great examples of organisations that are leading the way in Saudi Arabia.”
The report suggests that an integrated approach involving schools and universities, aggressive awareness drives at multiple levels, implementing supportive infrastructure, family engagement as well as women-specific policies and programs are the most effective ways to address the challenges of female employment. Developing more role models from the region, creating women-centric opportunities, investing in segregated offices and other useful facilities at the workplace, and organising transportation to and from work are among the strategies companies can adopt to create an enabling work environment.
PepsiCo, which has been instrumental in rolling the case study out across the GCC region has adopted a tailor-made gender diversity and inclusion program with four main focus areas: improving work/life balance, nurturing a culture of understanding by setting the right tone, creating opportunities for women and communication. In less than a decade, the percentage of female employees in PepsiCo’s Saudi office increased from five to 20, with women holding four out of 12 positions on the leadership team.
As co-partners of the event, Rania Rizk, senior vice president and general counsel, PepsicCo, Middle East and North Africa, said: “We recognize that there is a significant opportunity for corporations to foster diversity in the workplace. At PepsiCo, our vision is to leverage this diversity for talent and business growth. In our Saudi office, we have made diversity a strategic priority by creating a strong culture of performance, establishing mentorship programs and ensuring that female talent is developed at the same speed as male talent. This event has provided us with a great platform to discuss issues that remain a top priority for the global organisation as well as the regional operations.”
Since the launch of its gender diversity drive in Saudi Arabia, the Olayan Group has succeeded in increasing the number of women in managerial and executive roles more than three-fold, and established itself as a pioneer of female employment in the country. Since 2013, the company has witnessed a 181 percent increase in the number of female employees and a six-fold surge in female promotions. Today, the Olayan Group employs women across the industries in which it operates.
Hana AlSyead, VP diversity, Olayan Financing Company, said: “At Olayan, we are committed to actively cultivating opportunities for women in all the sectors in which we operate and across all managerial levels. We have a strong belief in women’s potential and capacity to reach their aspirations as valued members and contributors in the economy. Yesterday it was about creating employment opportunities, and today it is about enabling their pipeline to advance professionally into leadership roles. This report is instrumental in sharing best practices and understanding the opportunities and challenges that may impact women’s progress into leadership positions.”
GE, whose female workforce has reached 100 since hiring the first woman employee in 2009, recruits high achievers and boosts career growth through actively encouraging employees to take up challenges and reap the rewards. The company has created a growth-supportive environment combining classroom learning with live project responsibilities as well as individual coaching and career planning.
Noura Al Zaid, project manager at the Project Management Office at GE in Saudi Arabia, said: “Collaborating with the Pearl Initiative allowed us to share our proud efforts in attracting and retaining top female talent. GE’s rigorous selection process provide us with high-potential women employees who become the focus of our carefully-crafted growth and leadership programs. The healthy mix of global best practices in diversity with a deep understanding of regional particularities facilitated many success stories in this important part of our work environments. We are firmly committed to further develop and strengthen our human capital in line with national development plans.”
Having firmly established itself as the employer of choice for female engineering graduates in Oman, PDO has succeeded in ensuring that 30 percent of its senior leadership team comprises Omani women. Today, the company has a 50:50 gender ratio of entry-level petroleum engineers, including the first female Omani driller, and a balanced talent pool at junior and mid-career levels.
In April 2015, The Pearl Initiative released a breakthrough report titled ‘Women’s Careers in the GCC: The CEO Agenda’, based on the findings of a GCC-wide research programme conducted in partnership with SBWC. The study revealed that working women in the GCC region are as ambitious and career-driven as their counterparts in the rest of the world, with over 50 percent of those surveyed aiming at senior or board-level positions within the next seven years.
In addition, the Pearl Initiative invited top business leaders in the GCC region to take The Business Pledge during its second regional forum, Sustainability in Action: Business and the Sustainable Development Goals, hosted in collaboration with the United Nations Global Compact in late October 2016. The Business Pledge serves both as a commitment and a guide to the private sector’s journey towards responsible growth, and suggests practical and implementable solutions across four areas: Setting Targets for Sustainable and Responsible Growth, More Inclusive Workplace, Promoting Integrity, and Collaborations and Partnerships.
The Pearl Initiative summarized the findings of the case studies under two broad headings:
• Critical issues companies in the GCC region face
• Recommendations based on the outcome of the research
While the studies have found acquisition and retention of the right female talent to be the biggest challenge, they also suggest a solution for employers in the form of adopting five best practices:
• Creating balanced corporate culture through setting the stage for gender diversity in the workplace and providing role models.
• Investing in building career paths through structured career planning, mentorship and networking.
• Improving work/life balance through implementing flexible work policies, offering support systems and providing women-friendly facilities.
• Adopting HR policies that ensure equality, such as harassment prevention.
• Taking on the role of advocates of female employment within the wider community through raising awareness, launching initiatives and, in general, acting as ambassadors of the cause.
The findings of the case studies as well as the level of ongoing participation in the Business Pledge prove that there is a real need for and interest in achieving gender diversity in the region, which meets with increasing acceptance and encouragement at all levels. Through its multi-level interventions, the Pearl Initiative is committed to changing the mindset of the entire regional business and student community in favour of gender diversity in the workplace. — SG