Six women share their insights on the gender gap in the creative sector of the MENA region - shedding light on the challenges women face in attaining leadership roles and maintaining a sustainable work-life balance.
Throughout the pandemic, women have been quitting their jobs at a significant rate than men. What do you think has initiated this movement?
Anja Petrovski, Marketing and PR Director at Volkswagen Middle East: Women want more flexibility— not only around where they work, but when they work—but they still aren’t getting it. While the pandemic offered remote work options, facts show that employees still aren’t permitted to work remotely as much as they’d like. Lack of flexibility was one of the top-cited reasons for women who chose to leave their employer in the past year. Many don’t feel comfortable asking for flexible working arrangements, with an overwhelming majority of women feeling that doing so would affect their career progression. According to a survey by LinkedIn, 70% of workers in the Middle East are willing to quit jobs over lack of flexibility. The survey reveals almost 20% of the women who had taken a break due to lack of work flexibility said their career progress was being held back, and they are less likely to work for companies that don’t offer flexibility. While the demand for more flexible work is not exclusive to women in the workforce and employees of both genders are demanding more flexibility, for many women, especially for working mothers or those in caregiving roles, flexibility is not only a commodity but a necessity.
Akanksha Goel, Founder & CEO of Socialize: This isn’t something we’ve seen at Socialize. However, yes, there has been a general shift and reassessment during the pandemic, amongst men & women both. I think the trend we’re seeing with women globally, especially in their 30s, is that having spent time at home during the lockdowns they are unwilling to come back and conform to any pre-pandemic office expectations. They have perhaps enjoyed more balance during the pandemic & are starting to find that they can instead start small businesses that offer them the same. At Socialize, we have been offering flexibility to returning parents, to allow them to better manage work-life integration.
Beverley D’Cruz, General Manager at Yum Brands: The “She-cession” as the world is calling it began during the pandemic as childcare systems began to close and women found themselves at home with the role of a mother, employee, school teacher, caretaker, cook. The pressure of trying to juggle all these roles has led to women taking a step back. What I have learned through this experience is that you really can’t be everything to everyone and you must simply do the best you can in the moment. You must surround yourself with a support system that can help and empathize, and you demonstrate vulnerability and ask for help.
Abigail Laursen, Director of MarCom at Nestle Middle East: I have a few thoughts on this. One is that the objective should not be to create an environment where women are somehow the same as men. Rather, the focus should be on achieving equity, where women have an equal opportunity to succeed, starting from an even playing field. Today, women often are already behind the race. They face inherent biases that put them at a disadvantage from the outset. They also bear the additional burdens that come with societal expectations, be mental or physical. Therefore, the essence of this conversation lies in exploring ways to establish environments where women can begin their journey on equal footing, free from these pre-existing challenges.
Isabel Neiva, Partner at Kearney ME: I believe one of the broken aspects that needs attention is the lack of willingness among men to engage in this conversation. It is crucial to foster a dialogue that explores the different perspectives, separating facts from fiction. Throughout my career, I often found myself as the first, the only, or one of the few women in the room. It became challenging to have open and honest discussions about what works for women as they progress in their careers. I frequently received feedback from teams suggesting that I should exhibit more nurturing and caring qualities, while my managers expected me to be more assertive and aggressive, like their male counterparts. Distinguishing between what constitutes valuable feedback and what is merely a stereotype-driven opinion becomes incredibly difficult when men are not actively participating in these conversations.
Lynn Chouman, Managing Editor at LinkedIn News: There’s a lot of talk about women in the workplace. It’s an interesting timing as well because the world of work is evolving rapidly. We’re entering a new era that will be shaped by generative AI. The transformation we’re experiencing goes beyond a simple yes or no; flexibility is now a wild concept with a wide spectrum of possibilities. Sustainability, always in the back of our minds, has become a reality, influencing our awareness and shaping laws. These factors indicate that we’re entering a new era of work that will have a significant impact on women. We’re here at the Women to Watch Conference to discuss the facts and fiction surrounding this topic and explore the main pain points and opportunities faced by women in the industry. We must have a growth mindset and focus on identifying the challenges and opportunities.
What do organizations need to do differently to retain women talent in the region?
A.G: Where we typically see a talent drain is when women take maternity leave. Traditionally, agencies have not been very welcoming places for women to come back, with set hours, the need to work on client hours, etc. Agencies need to be flexible with women and parents and in general or we’ll lose our best talent, who are moms too.
A.L: In my role at Nestle, I have gained valuable insights into the region, and I have noticed that certain aspects remain consistent while varying in levels of development across different regions and markets. Firstly, individuals face the challenge of determining their priorities and finding a balance in their lives. This involves understanding how to care for their families and homes while also maintaining a sense of personal identity. Finding this equilibrium requires personal reflection and introspection. Secondly, addressing challenges involves a combination of individual support and organizational policy changes. As line managers, colleagues, and friends, we can provide a supportive environment by lending a listening ear and being there for one another. At Nestle, for instance, we have implemented a “mommy and me” policy to offer additional time for mothers returning to work after maternity leave. However, it is essential to recognize that individual empowerment and support are equally important alongside larger organizational changes and policies.
Where do you think the creative and communications industry stands in tackling the ‘broken rung’? While we’re witnessing a lot of women in the region making it to the boardroom, at C-suite positions, do you think climbing the professional ladder is still a struggle for women as compared to men?
A.P: In the past few decades, the communications and creative industry has been making enormous efforts to equally represent men and women thus, working towards closing the gender barrier gap. As opposed to the past, the narrative seems to be changing today with more women coming to the forefront in the creative industry. However, there is still quite some way for the industry to achieve complete gender equality with research by Women in Advertising & Communications Leadership (WACL) showing how based on the current rate of change, women won’t hold 50% of CEOs or C-Suite positions until 2060. Collectively, as an industry, we need to do more!
A.G: Business is a team sport. You need to identify team players, know how to get the best out of each other, work & play better together. It’s easier to do this with people who look, behave, communicate like you. Over the years, with men having held most key agency network leadership roles, more men have been selected, showcased & promoted to top positions. I still find myself on tables where I’m amongst few, sometimes the first/only woman and it can be hard to know how to fit in when you so obviously stand out. This is a simultaneously isolating & intimidating experience for women, with pressure to represent positive stereotypes while being more cautious/reserved with what they say or do (especially for women of color/Asian ethnicities). This negative energy builds up and while we are seeing an increasing number of women making it to senior positions, many are still choosing to leave. Businesses now have a pipeline problem at the top.
B.D: Building an environment of mentorship and support is critical in the workspace. For every leader that succeeds if he/she were to pull up one other leader on that ladder of success instead of pulling up the ladder right behind them the world would be a far more inclusive place. We need more mentors, more leaders celebrating the successes of peers, and more leaders opening doors for other leaders for this industry to become a fair equitable space.
A.L: In many cases, flexibility is seen as the ultimate solution. Organizations often believe that flexibility alone will address all the challenges. However, in the highly relationship-focused MENA creative industry, simply adopting flexibility measures won’t be sufficient. If companies predominantly shift towards flexible arrangements where women are more likely to work from home rather than the office, it can inadvertently lead to a situation where men, who are physically present in the office and engaging in client interactions, are disproportionately favored for opportunities. While flexibility can be beneficial, it needs to be accompanied by comprehensive policies and a mindset centered around inclusion. Inclusion should encompass remote employees being included in office discussions and the representation of individuals from diverse groups to ensure fair opportunities. Relying solely on flexibility as a solution is risky if it’s not accompanied by a shift in mindset.
I.N: I agree with Abigail’s perspective. Flexibility in the workplace can truly benefit women only if it is implemented in a gender-neutral manner. If only women are working from home while men are physically present in the office, it may result in women being overlooked or undervalued in the workplace. Despite women’s high productivity and outstanding results, their absence from the physical workspace may hinder their visibility and recognition. Therefore, in my opinion, the true effectiveness of flexibility can only be achieved when it is implemented without gender bias.
How has the definition of inclusion (gender specific) evolved in MENA’s workplace? What difference have you witnessed in women’s expectations from their workplace as compared to that of men?
A.P: The last decade has brought sweeping redefinition to workplaces across the MENA region. To a degree not seen before in the history of the region, women are fulfilling active roles in the private and public sectors, and the region is making strides in closing its gender gap, with governments setting ambitious goals and an increasing number of organizations adding gender diversity to their agenda. While government initiatives have been the primary drivers of the region’s female workforce participation rose over the last twenty years, the surge has also been supported by a perfect storm of economic and social change drivers, including some of the highest tertiary education enrollment rates in the world and a broadening of socially accepted roles for women within the region. While organizations and employers often overlook the potential of their female employees, some women also tend to underestimate themselves in the workforce and undersell their work, and are less likely to put themselves forward for promotions in the first place.
B.D: Inclusion goes far beyond gender. Inclusion is about acceptance of ways of thinking, ethnicity, skin color, religion, and a whole lot more. If we were to zoom into gender, I believe that women are expecting a lot more from their partners at home and in workspaces in terms of support and balance. The introduction of paternity leave and menstrual days off are just some examples of how our workplaces are adapting to these changing needs.
It’s no surprise that instances of burnout among women are greater than men across the globe. What is causing that and how is it impacting progress for women?
A.G: There is an entire generation of women who are drowning because they were raised with traditional gender roles while being empowered to be independent. These women still take on the majority of house duties while simultaneously killing it in the workplace. They’re tired. Also, at a time of great reflection, quit-quitting, and employees re-evaluating their relationship with the workplace, we’re seeing more women leaders stepping in to help teams navigate work–life challenges, providing emotional support. Teams are valuing this, but it also explains a lot of this sensation that we hear regarding burnout and fatigue because they’re disproportionately doing this additional work in the office context (often without additional compensation) and as we already know, they’re disproportionately doing it at home too.
A.L: Women feel the constant pressure to navigate their various roles and strive to find a delicate balance among them. The resulting burnout experienced by women can be truly daunting. Additionally, when we consider the realities women face in advancing their careers, it becomes evident that this pressure can reach a breaking point. If a woman finds herself striving to achieve a personal sense of balance in her life, while simultaneously feeling the need to work harder in her professional sphere to secure promotions, raises, and recognition for opportunities, it can feel like a constant uphill battle. This is where organizations must recognize and acknowledge the multitude of roles that women undertake and are expected to fulfill. The complexity of these circumstances, coupled with the bias women face and the systemic challenges ingrained within society, make it considerably more difficult for women to advance.
How can the creative industry of the MENA prioritize their women employees’ health and well-being? Do you suggest any organizational models that can help empower their women?
A.P: It’s not about organizational models. It’s about having a progressive mindset and culture. Building and maintaining a truly inclusive culture should be at the forefront of every corporate agenda. This means organizations need to address burnout, make mental well-being a priority, provide developmental opportunities, have formal processes for reporting non-inclusive behaviors, and approach hybrid working with inclusive and flexible policies that work for women.
A.G: I don’t think we should prioritize ‘women’s health’ We need to shift the conversation away from women’s and mothers’ issues towards discussions about gender equity and enabling parents of both genders to maintain their careers. Any progress in this area requires the active engagement and support of men if it is to get anywhere. However, I do recognize that women are often left with a mental load that men don’t have. Organizing pick up from school, play dates, lunchboxes, organizing the nanny, and whatnot. Things like these often fall on the women. They’re better at it. But I’d question any workplace giving special treatment to female mental health and well-being and think it needs to come down to equality & equity. The only way to do so is to ensure that we’re not just providing equal opportunities to her, but making them equitable for everyone in the company - on a case-by-case basis. It might be different for a mother or a father or somebody with physical disabilities or somebody who’s a carer etc. - and that to me isn’t a gender question it’s more about designing/catering to an individual employee.
B.D: I don’t believe that MENA is prioritizing health and well-being for men or women! The conversation around mental health still feels taboo and not something that is widely or openly discussed. We need more of this in the workplace, and we need senior leaders in the industry to role model, be vulnerable, show empathy, and actively engage in conversations.
L.C: Women make up literally half of the talent pool. The importance of giving tools to women to thrive in the workplace lies in the prospect of building a healthy workplace environment, further, enabling businesses to thrive and grow in the best way possible. From an organizational perspective, it’s about providing the tools to make sure women can grow like their gender counterparts and that they’re not discriminated against. A positive environment constituting this is going to enable them to be themselves at work and contribute to productivity.
Disclaimer: All of the above-expressed views are personal and not those of any organization.
This piece was first published in Communicate's Women to Watch Issue 2023.