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Women at Work in the Middle East: How HR Can Help

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Female professionals and leaders in the Middle East have made great strides over the past couple of years, with policy changes encouraging women to step into employment with more confidence. 

However, the region continues to experience the lowest female labour force participation rate in the world at 24.6%, which is significantly lower than the world average, which sits at 47.8%, according to McKinsey’s ‘Women at Work’ report

Much of the negligible representation of female professionals in the Middle East is attributed to gender bias and stereotypes, prohibiting the expansion of female labour participation. LinkedIn insights suggest that 52% of Saudi women believe the false perception that they don’t have the right skills for the job opportunities available, is the biggest myth hindering their career. 

Nevertheless, this perception could not be further from the truth, with studies proving that more women enrol in higher education than men in the Middle East. Specifically, in the UAE, the literacy rate of women is 95.8%, with Emirati women making up 77% of university enrolments and 64% of all graduates in the UAE, proving that they are more than capable and qualified to receive the same professional recognition as their male counterparts. 

Although this is detrimental to the progression of female workers in the Middle East, it is also greatly affecting the region as a whole, as only a small part of the talent pool’s skills and knowledge is being utilised.

According to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Middle East and North Africa are collectively losing an estimated $575 billion a year as a result of the legal and social barriers that exist, which prevent women in the region from accessing jobs and developing their careers.

Nonetheless, organisations and HR departments in the region can help promote greater diversity and support female professionals to help balance the scales. 

Promoting greater diversity in the Middle East is not a one-size-fits-all approach and it must be handled with care. Below we review five ways in which employers and HR managers can help in closing the gender gap, one organisation at a time.

1) Providing Equal Opportunities for Growth & Progression

Following the publication of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ in 2022, the Arab world has been left in a state of unsettlement and concern, as the report estimated that the MENA region would not reach gender parity for approximately 115 years.

Policymakers and leadership boards have since been working towards actively promoting gender equality in the Middle East, making opportunities available to all, regardless of gender.  

The most prominent example is Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’. It aims at economic diversification, global engagement, the development of society, and most importantly the upskilling and empowerment of women, providing them with opportunities to build their future. The plan yielded impressive results since its launch, with around 33.6% of the Saudi workforce now being women, compared to 15% in 2018.

Without a doubt, learning and development opportunities should be as easily accessible for female professionals in the Middle East to help them develop important primary skills and knowledge that can set them on an equal progression track as their female colleagues. 

Skilling programmes for professionals of varied backgrounds and industry sectors should be employed, ensuring that all employers receive the same quality of training, preparing them for rising industry trends and tools they will be utilising in line with their work.

2) Utilising Quantifiable Metrics

This point goes hand-in-hand with the one above, and it is in regard to the career development of employees in the Middle East, regardless of their gender. 

The most effective way for this to be achieved is through the utilisation of quantifiable metrics by organisations, to assess whether an employee has achieved their targets.

Essentially, employee performance metrics help give an overview of an individual's productivity, effectiveness and overall contribution to the organisation and it can involve anything from time management, to ability to collaborate with colleagues , to goal achievement. 

By setting out a clear strategy and measurable objectives, employers can fairly measure their staff’s progress, regardless of gender, while also keeping senior managers accountable. Along with that, this strategy sends a message that the company is committed to cultivating a diverse and inclusive workforce based on capabilities and not gender. 

It also suggests that the company values the promotion of the right employees according to their contributions and dedication, as well as valuing top talent. 

More importantly, through the employment of such metrics, organisations can identify skill gaps in their workforce, and make data-driven decisions on the type of training programmes and development strategies they can introduce. 

3) Creating Anti-discriminatory Policies

To appropriately address gender discrimination in the workplace, businesses must revisit their core policies and values to promote gender inclusivity.

Gender-equal policies and practices must be designed to be inclusive of all genders, not just specifically male and female employees, and foster an environment where individuals feel valued and respected. 

Besides encouraging more people to join and stay, companies will see great benefits by creating inclusive HR policies. From higher job satisfaction and lower turnover rates to attracting and retaining the best available talent as a result of the organisation’s strong reputation. 

The most notable example of such policies involves harassment and anti-discrimination, where the business has zero tolerance for such language and behaviours. These policies should be clearly outlined to diminish gender stereotypes and biases and help female employees feel safe and supported.

Additionally, it is also vital that policies regarding maternity leave and returning mothers are enforced to assist their reintegration into the company. For example, many companies, such as PwC Middle East, have introduced Keep In Touch days, where employees can work for up to 10 days during maternity leave. These help them stay in touch with the organisation and make their return easier, without compromising their role. 

According to Pamila Braganza, HR Director of dmg events Middle East, Asia and Africa expressed that, “If a woman decides to stay home to look after her child, the career break resets her career trajectory, and women rarely pick up where they left off.” 

4) Promoting Healthier Work-life Balance

Insights from management consulting firm Bain & Company identified that among parents with dependent children in the Middle East, 61% of women stated that they handle the day-to-day caregiving duties themselves. It, therefore, comes as no surprise as to why very few Middle Eastern women return to work after taking a break, primarily due to maternity leave. 

In fact, PwC revealed that only 43% of women in MENA have returned to work after taking career breaks, while 66% of working mothers fear that a career break will negatively impact their careers. 

Due to this, organisations in the Middle East must promote the importance of wellbeing to address the work-life balance gap that is evident. 

Flexible and remote working options can be offered to employees, especially to those who are caregivers, with managers receiving the appropriate training to be able to identify signs of stress and burnout amongst employees on their teams.

Another way to help ease the balance is by providing childcare support facilities, such as daycare, in the workplace for instances where employees must physically be in the office, relieving unnecessary stress for working mothers who may struggle to afford private childcare. 

5) Supporting Female Networking Forums 

While gender inequality and gender bias are not areas where there is a quick fix, and policies need to be cultivated and fostered to overcome them, there are initiatives employers and HR departments can support more immediately to drive gender equality.

Such initiatives include female networking forums, where female professionals can have open conversations on matters of concern, meet like-minded and successful women, and be in a supportive environment.

Networking groups are an efficient way for women to make valuable new contacts, gain inspiration, and even go the extra mile in providing women with a safe space for gender and equality issues to be discussed without judgement. 

While sustained dialogues around these issues are essential in driving long-term change, employers and company HR departments should actively promote and support such forums, demonstrating that they value their female workforce and what they have to say.


The gender equality gap in the Middle East will continue to be a popular topic of conversation for years to come. However, more than conversations and discussions about it will be necessary in addressing and bridging the gap. Actions must be taken to slowly alter the bias and diminish stereotypes so that future female professionals do not face the same discrimination as many do today. This must start, first and foremost, with the individual employer followed by their HR departments to achieve success.

Enrol on a 100% accredited CIPD Human Resources qualification with Acacia Learning today to effectively support your organisation’s female workforce.