International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women’s achievements and pressing for progress in the space of diversity & inclusion. Throughout the month of March, we will be highlighting success stories and discuss practices that work with HR leaders in the region.

In this interview, EY’s Strategic Talent Consultant Hiba Abboud tackles gender quotas head-on. To her, it’s much more about creating a supportive culture and changing mindsets. We also hear discuss mentors and work-life balance. 

What did you want to be growing up? Tell us a bit about your path.

I am yet to meet a little kid who answers the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” with “a Talent Strategy Consultant”! Some people are lucky enough to know early on what they want to do with their life. For the rest of us, we find our purpose after we try out different things. 

From selling music CDs at school to being a tour guide at university, my “career” took a lot of twists and turns before I found a field I felt truly passionate about. 

Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to have a very supporting manager who allowed me to train across departments in the company till I ended up in HR and fell in love with the profession. I have enjoyed remarkable journeys of growth in this very dynamic and ever-changing field of human science. What I only recently realised is that working in talent strategy fulfills a very unique purpose: you get to contribute first-hand to shaping the place where people spend most of their waking hours. Work consumes a big proportion of people’s lives, and to be in a position where you can tangibly influence the way they experience that time is quite special.  

As a people professional, what do you believe makes a real difference to promote greater female representation at the workplace?

The quota debate! Some companies impose recruitment or promotion quotas to push gender balance. While this is well-intended, I personally believe it can open the doors for feelings of resentment in the workplace, and not only by men. Well-deserving women who get promoted or hired lose that sense of accomplishment. They are diluted by the quota requirement, and it becomes unclear to them and to those around them whether their progression was based on merit or to meet a gender quota. 

The approach I prefer to adopt is setting gender ‘targets’ not quotas, and then working backwards to create a level-playing field for women. For instance, if we are targeting a 50% female representation at manager level, we need to look at the ranks below and address any barriers that could come in the way of women taking that step in their career. Are there unique development needs that need to be address, whether from a technical or leadership perspective? Do our policies take into account the unique personal pressures women face and do they support their professional growth? Do we have the right leaders in place to support women in progressing in their careers? Where gaps are identified, I believe addressing them goes a much longer way in sustainably closing the gender gap than any quota approach will.

So, what approach do you think can make a real impact on women’s inclusion at work?

When it comes to a changing corporate culture, you need to build momentum from within the business. An initiative that is “imposed” by HR will not succeed as much as one that is “sponsored” by business leaders. When it comes to gender inclusion, I believe my role, and that of other HR strategy consultants, is to influence policy reform and purposefully change mindsets so that women have an equal chance at career success as men. 

The approach I take when trying to challenge existing beliefs is based on research in social science. You can push a belief from the fringes into the mainstream if at least 25% of the population supports it. So when I want to influence a change in mindset towards an existing belief (e.g.: “working from home is not possible in our industry”, “success only comes with working long hours”, “women cannot negotiate with clients like men can so I would rather promote/hire men”), I seek willing leaders that support the more inclusive policies we want to adopt, create pockets of success within their teams, and use those examples to drive further change with more resistant leaders. 

When you have enough teams onboard, the new belief starts to become mainstream. We have a better chance of changing corporate culture when we start with leaders and teams who we know will end up with a success story. We can then quantify (in dollar value) the benefit of the changes made, and showcase those benefits to get less-willing leaders to change. When you hit the tipping point – that 25% - it becomes much easier to get everyone else onboard. 

What would be one piece of advice for women who want to advance in their career? 

You can’t navigate a career without support. To succeed in the workplace, one of the most important things women can do, and often overlook, is to be purposeful in their relationship-building. No matter where you are in your career, you need people around you to support you. My advice is to start early with building a network. Actively seek out mentors and develop your relationship with them. Listen to their advice and act on it and put in the effort to build a reputation that will attract sponsors. 

I have had many mentors along the way who gave me guidance and helped me navigate difficult situations at work. As my skills developed with their support, I started to build a positive reputation at work. That reputation is what attracts sponsors as you progress in your career – sponsors are people who have a seat at the table and are willing to advocate for you when you are not in the room. When you see that someone is showing an interest in your career, demonstrate through your work that they are investing in the right person. Continue to develop that trust-based relationship and you will be surprised at their willingness to advocate for you when the time comes for people to make a decision about that promotion or raise you’ve been hoping for.

As a woman in a leadership position, what do you think is your role in enabling more women to climb that career ladder? 

The role female leaders play is critical in the journey towards closing the gender gap. Aside from practicing what we preach with our own teams, supporting women through coaching or mentoring, and trying to influence business leaders to be more inclusive, we are also role models for other women moving up the career ladder. 

If what we do doesn’t look appealing, we risk women not wanting to continue the climb. I think one of the most important things we need to be mindful of as women leaders is how we come across in our efforts to balance work and personal life. By staying focused on our own well-being, we can demonstrate to other women that having a successful career does not mean giving up on your personal life. I have had many conversations with women who have said they are not interested in more because it looks exhausting. We need to be mindful of this not only for our own well-being, but also for the negative influence an unhealthy work-life balance can have on people who are looking up to us as female leaders.

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