Perspectives

COVID Compounds Gender Inequality In the Arab Workplace

Arab women now face not only the logistical struggles of balancing work, childcare, healthcare and domestic labor, but also a widespread mindset that their career success is secondary. By Radwa El Taweel.

Two weeks before Brunswick moved to a global work-from-home policy, I found out I was pregnant with my first child.

With this news came the joy of bringing a new life into the world, the excitement of shopping for tiny shoes and onesies with ears. But the news also brought fear about the impact on my career, about being held back or perceived as inefficient and distracted.

That is not a new fear for women, of course. But it is heightened during this unprecedented, global human crisis.

For me, being pregnant during this pandemic has brought to light the outsized impact of adverse economic conditions on women. The experience has been tough for everyone, of course, but the implications for women, and in particular women in the Arab World, could be longer lasting than most.

Artwork created by Honna, an initiative launched by students in Cairo to promote gender equality by encouraging women to support and inspire each other. The caption says that society’s view of women will not change unless women change their view of other women.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia estimates that women will lose approximately 700,000 jobs as a result of the pandemic, compounding inequality in a region where the rate of women in work barely exceeds 20 percent, according to the World Bank.

Amid the pandemic, Arab women are facing not just the logistical struggles of balancing work, childcare, healthcare and domestic labor, with the closure of schools and nurseries, but also a widespread mindset that our career success is secondary. A World Values Survey reports that more than 50 percent of respondents in MENA and South Asia believe that men have more right to a job than women when jobs are scarce. 

Remote working policies have long been advocated as a potential way to improve women’s professional participation and growth, offering greater flexibility for juggling careers alongside unpaid domestic labour. With remote working enforced by the pandemic in many companies, COVID-19 could be the first step in a long-term shift in how we work.

More than 50% of respondents in MENA and South Asia believe that men have more right to a job than women when jobs are scarce.

Farah Foustok is CEO of Lazard Gulf Limited and Co-Founder of 30% Club MENA chapter, an organization that works to increase women’s representation at corporate board and management level. “If remote working is proving effective for businesses, the question is how do we take the best of the physical and virtual world to create an optimal environment for all,” she says.

One benefit Farah sees is a shift away from trying to achieve work-life balance towards clear demarcation between work and personal life. “Working from home, you need to have the discipline to say this time is for work, this time is for family, this time is for me,” she says.

A recent study by Brunswick Insight showed that 62 percent of women in the UAE expect to have a better balance between work and personal life post-pandemic, though only half felt optimistic that remote working would continue to be an option.

Equality starts when women and men share equal responsibilities at home, says Farah, but she emphasizes that structural change requires a strategic vision from the top. “We need more leaders who believe in bringing in competent women to address business problems. If women are not involved at every level of the development of the corporate world, we will still have these biases in the system.”

Farah Foustok, CEO of Lazard Gulf Limited and Co-Founder of 30% Club MENA chapter.

Increasing gender equality in the workforce has been shown time and again to add value to businesses, making women’s participation an issue of economic success as well as social equality. According to McKinsey, without specific action to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on women, the global GDP could lose $1 trillion by 2030—but advancing gender equality starting now could add an astounding $13 trillion in the same timeframe.

Foustok says, “We need to ensure that competent women are embedded all the way through the process, and this has to come from the leadership as a strategic and sustainable vision. I will continue to challenge the boundaries so that business leaders understand that decisions cannot be made if women are not sitting at every table.” 

Among other goals, the 30% Club seeks to achieve 30 percent female representation on corporate boards. While the 30% Club focuses on influencing decision makers to change the process of hiring, developing, retaining and promoting women to senior positions, other advocates focus on changing women’s mindsets to overcome internalized stereotypes and biases.

Widespread biases about gender roles have formed part of the region’s collective consciousness—the set of beliefs and values that a social group or society shares. When we hear these messages throughout our lives, they become part of our reality. Rejecting these limiting stereotypes is neither easy nor simple.

Men do not have seminars about male empowerment, because they know they have the power. Women need to know that they also have power.

Dr. Sara Al Madani Emirati entrepreneur and women’s advocate

“We need to question social beliefs before we accept them as true,” says MindHacker and Psychologist Hiba Balfaqih who has helped hundreds of individuals around the world find their way and overcome their limiting beliefs through Mindhacking Coaching. “At some point, somebody in history said that a woman cannot achieve both career and family success. Hearing this message limits women’s minds, puts us in a box, and ensures we feel guilty for trying to get out of it.”

Dr. Sara Al Madani, an Emirati entrepreneur and women’s advocate, believes that change starts at home when women support and inspire each other to go after new achievements. In a viral video launched in August 2020, she says: “Women do not need to be empowered, because we are not weak. We are already powerful, but we need to know that we are. Men do not have seminars about male empowerment, because they know they have the power. Women need to know that they also have power. A woman does not need to be empowered; she needs to be inspired.”   

In March 2020, a team of students at Cairo’s MSA University launched a community initiative called "Honna" with the aim to promote gender equality by encouraging women to support and inspire each other. Co-founder Sohyla Nasser explains that through a campus survey the group’s organizers found that female jealousy was seen as normal, with young women trapped in a cycle of gossiping and criticizing each other, followed by feelings of guilt.

Honna's founders

“The worst form of injustice is the one enforced by a woman on another. We live it every day, in social as well as professional interactions,” says Farida Amr, another Co-founder. “Changing women’s attitudes towards each other will not be fixed overnight, but we have already started reaping the fruits of our efforts.” In less than six months, the group’s message has reached 20,000 followers on Facebook. 

Throughout my pregnancy, I have felt the impact of these internalized messages on my own mindset—feeling guilt, even greediness for trying to have both a career and a new family. It is a feeling familiar to many working mothers.

To counter internalized social messages and change your own behavior, Balfaqih recommends turning inwards. “Start with the woman in the mirror and learn to accept yourself first,” she says. “If you see something you want to change, speak up, and when you say it, say it out of love.”

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Radwa El Taweel is an Account Director based in Abu Dhabi. 

Images: courtesy of Honna, Farah Foustok, and Dr. Sara Al Madani.