The issue of female participation in the GCC labour market has sparked plenty of debate over the past few years, with most commentators suggesting that slow but steady progress is being made. But as the economic picture across the Middle East turns decidedly gloomy, could getting women into work be the key to preventing financial meltdown?

A new report from YouGov, and Education for Employment (EFE), entitled First Jobs for Young Women in MENA, argues that hiring more women and implementing female-friendly employment policies could significantly boost corporate profitability at a crucial juncture.

It says unemployment rates for young women in many Gulf countries are touching 40 per cent, with Egypt (65 per cent), Yemen and Jordan (50 per cent) the worst cases, though even in the UAE national GDP could be lifted by 12 per cent if both sexes had equal access to the employment market.

So what is causing such disparities to linger, even as political will builds towards gender equality in many nations, and business acknowledges that talent shortages remain a critical issue? The report points to barriers including: employer expectations that women will stop working when they start a family; the need for flexible working hours; transportation and commuting difficulties; and inadequate salaries.

“When young women have access to jobs, it creates a profound impact,” says Jasmine Nahhas di Florio, vice president of strategy and partnerships at EFE. “At a personal level, women’s employment can foster the dignity and financial independence that transform individuals and families. The potential economic benefit of increased female employment is equally striking, and the private sector in MENA has a lot to gain by boosting women’s employment.”

The most sought-after benefit, according to the report, is flexible working – wanted by 52 per cent of women already in jobs and 39 per cent of those seeking employment. This is followed by the ability to work from home, nursery or daycare facilities and the availability of part-time positions.

“Companies looking to recruit and retain more young women should strategically invest in what really matters to them, and take proactive steps to publicise benefits information to recruits and employees,” adds Nahhas di Florio.

Rania Anderson, international speaker, author and founder of the organisation The Way Women Work, says policies are important but not enough. “First, the mandate for diversity and inclusion must emanate from the executive level, but it cannot be a standalone edict with little behind it. Male supervisors, managers and leaders need to be shown specifically what they can do to enable the full engagement of women.”

In the survey, 32 per cent of young women in jobs cited knowing someone at their company as most helpful in securing their first role. Carolin Zeitler, founder of Qatari organisation How Women Work, says women often don’t want to be “pushy” but “the best jobs in Doha are never officially advertised, they just go to friends of friends”.

She says employers should stop believing that married women only work because they have nothing better to do, which leads them to offer minimal salary packages: “The work should be valued and compensated fairly. It would really help if concepts like job sharing and part-time work were officially introduced in Qatar.”

Siemens Qatar, the local offshoot of the international engineering business, shows the potential for businesses to change the way they recruit and retain women. Livia Freudl, head of HR, says the business began to put a focus on gender diversity about 12 months ago and has since increased the number of women in its ranks from 9 to 11.5 per cent.

Around 70 per cent of Siemens’ roles require an engineering background, which can make it difficult to find suitably qualified females: “It is still important that we hire the best person for the job, but we make a lot of effort to find potential female candidates for all our openings, even if they do not apply.”

Freudl adds that women tend to think that they must fit all the requirements before even applying for a job, and that part-time work and fixed hours are rare when starting out. “Women sometimes shy away to avoid a conflict with their family commitments,” she says. “Employers might then also have the tendency to take the easy solution with a male candidate.”

But Freudl has found that supporting female employees with caring responsibilities pays dividends: “We get a tremendous amount of loyalty, hard work and great performance back, which is often worth more than what it cost us to allow some flexibility during challenging times.”

Zeitler says even male-dominated sectors such as construction are working to attract more female talent. And in Qatar at least, things are slowly changing. “I think there is too much force behind women’s empowerment already to stop it now,” she adds. “I’m sure another surge will come soon and, as public acceptance is much higher than it was only 10 years ago, that next surge will surely bring about significant changes again.”

Anderson agrees that the situation for women is improving all the time. “The pace is very slow, way too slow for me, but I see women succeeding everywhere and men being a part of enabling that success.”

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