This long table discussion delved into the many compounded challenges young women today are actively battling within the 2023 professional landscape. Asiya Ali, Managing Director of MKV Digital; Injeel Moti, Founder and CEO of Catch Communications; Nikita Phulwani, Founder and Managing Director of By Niggi and; Sabrin Al-Aloul, Account Manager for Enterprise and Technology Practice at Asda’a BCW discuss how organizations going flat can reconcile generations and drive change top down.
What are Gen-Z women demanding from a workplace? How critical is it for them to have these requirements delivered?
Asiya Ali: As the world undergoes rapid changes, the demands of employees are evolving, and this holds true for each generation. Gen Z, in particular, is experiencing significant shifts that surpass those of previous generations. This directly influences their mental and physical well-being, ultimately reflecting in their workplace dynamics. They are more aware of their environment, their potential, and how the world is beginning to adapt to meet their capabilities. Hence, it is crucial for organizations to address three key factors that are essential in keeping any generation happy: Ensuring their voices are heard, recognizing and incentivizing their contributions, and providing mentorship and ample opportunities for career growth.
Injeel Moti: Every generation comes with its own unique demands and expectations from an organization, as do organizations from their employees. Understanding that needs change with each generation and the ability to navigate and evolve is critical. I have observed that Gen-Z women value transparent and authentic communication from their employers. They appreciate organizations that are open and honest about company goals, strategies, and decision-making processes. They also expect regular feedback and constructive communication channels with their managers and colleagues.
Nikita Phulwani: I believe Gen Z prioritizes work-life balance. They seek flexible working styles, such as the option to work from home a few days a week. They also value training opportunities that go beyond skill improvement, such as personality development and enhancing their overall capabilities. Respectful and inclusive environments are crucial to them, as they are not inclined towards rigid or orthodox work cultures. They are not afraid to decline opportunities that don’t align with their goals and purpose. While working with Gen Z and interviewing them regularly, I’ve encountered both positive and negative experiences. Many have left previous roles due to toxic environments where their opinions were disregarded, and micromanagement was prevalent. To put it in a nutshell, Gen Z women are seeking better training opportunities, flexible work environments, a sense of being heard and valued, an absence of toxicity and rigidity, and an open-door policy where they can freely express themselves.
Sabrin Al Aloul: One of the biggest challenges I face that kind of encompasses both being a woman and being a young person in the workforce is not being taken seriously. I feel like our aspirations, our priorities aren’t really taken as seriously as that of both, our male counterparts and those of the previous generations. For instance, we’ve witnessed a paradigm shift, where mental health is a lot more important to the younger generation than it was to the previous ones. And, that has opened the door to different expectations within their careers. That trickles down to a lot of different topics like culture, corporate culture, work-life balance, and career progression. Once leaders and companies realize how important it is to listen to their Gen Z workforce – decode their aspirations, hear their insights (we have really fresh insights, we’re digital-savvy and capable of making things happen in a rapidly digitally transforming world), they’ll effectively be tapping into our demands.
There is a discussion around more and more young women jumping jobs – what is the grounding reason for this movement?
A.A: I disagree. It’s not just women but also men who are experiencing these changes. There are two questions to consider: First, what is causing us to notice this change recently? And second, what is leading individuals to jump jobs? Job hopping has always existed, but it may not have been as prevalent because fewer people started working at a young age, 15 years ago. In my own experience, I started working at a young age and changed jobs, but back then, we didn’t have 13-year-olds running businesses and achieving financial success. Nowadays, with the influence of social media and the opportunity to gain experience at a young age, it’s not surprising that many individuals, regardless of gender, are switching jobs. I support young people exploring different career paths and finding their true calling, rather than attempting to convince young women to stay with a specific organization. No one should be obligated to work for a single organization for their entire life.
I.M: I wouldn’t say that applies to women only, it is being observed in both young men and women. Reasons are varied and range from career exploration to personal growth & skill development. Some are in the pursuit of finding a work-life balance while others may move for compensation and advancement-related reasons. I have observed all the above while running the business and think them to be fair, provided there is critical thinking and understanding behind the decisions.
N.P: There are a couple of reasons behind this. One is the huge pool of content that this generation is exposed to, which makes them more aware of the best and the worst. Two, it’s the demand of Gen Z to be recognized. We can see on platforms like TikTok that getting popular can also help them make money. They think differently; they want to become content curators on the side or have another passion project they want to turn into a business. Because, again, there’s so much content about that as well. Recognition is probably fueled by the constant need for validation, which I think is alright.
S.A.A: It goes back to one aspect I mentioned – the elevated importance of mental well-being. The Arab Youth Survey, an annual study conducted by Asda’a BCW, unveiled how one in four Arabs in the Levant and North Africa have rated their mental health as either poor or not good. What does that show us? It’s a concern running rampant within our region and shedding light on the role of leaders here - They need to take that into consideration. Don’t judge Gen Z. Listen to us, listen to our aspirations, our thoughts, and our ideas, you can learn a lot.
The pandemic elevated the importance of mental well-being among Gen Z women: what does this mean for organizations? How can they make their Gen Z women feel like they belong?
A.A: Building on Sabrin’s last point, at MKV, we introduced therapy sessions for the team and hired a yoga expert for weekly sessions. While these initiatives may seem appealing and can be used to promote our culture at MKV, they can actually do more harm than good for employees. I highly encourage young women to seek professional help independently. The workplace should not serve as a reminder of mental health challenges. Instead, it should be an escape—a place that motivates and appreciates individuals for their work, rather than a place that is aware of their mental health struggles and limits their opportunities based on them. When it comes to organizations creating a sense of belonging for women, I personally believe that no one can make you feel like you belong if you don’t feel it from within. However, certain measures can improve mental well-being. Organizations can consider reducing working hours for new parents, allowing employees more time to focus on their personal lives, providing flexible working hours to spend more time with loved ones, and ensuring they feel included.
I.M: Organizations have a significant role to play in supporting the mental health of their employees, particularly Gen-Z women. It begins with fostering a supportive environment and creating a culture that values and prioritizes mental health. Encourage open conversations about mental well-being, reduce stigma, and provide resources and support for seeking help when needed. Ensure that employees feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns without fear of judgment or negative repercussions. Go one step ahead and offer access to mental health resources such as counselling services, or partnerships with mental health professionals as part of job perks. We have been able to successfully integrate this at Catch in 2023 and routinely encourage utilization with our employees.
N.P: When I initially started my business, it was just me. Gradually, I hired more people, but due to budget constraints and the nature of the business being service-based, I had to rely on younger and fresher talent. Admittedly, I had some reservations and stereotypes about this group. However, I realized it was unfair to generalize and changed my mindset and approach. I also realized that the way I communicated and addressed them made a significant difference. Drawing from my personal experiences, if someone constantly tells you something negative about yourself, like being fat in my case, it can affect your perception of others. I didn’t want to box them into preconceived notions based on the actions of a few individuals. Additionally, as I grew older, I became more aware of mental health and its significance. The level of awareness during my younger years was not as high, but now there is ample content and discussions on the subject. I recognized that toxic corporate cultures contribute to mental health problems. To address these issues, I implemented certain measures. For example, on mental health day, we organized a mandala art workshop, and during the fitness month, we participated in workout classes. I believe physical exercise greatly benefits mental well-being. Furthermore, during onboarding, I inform new hires that they can approach me or HR if they’re having a difficult day or need time off due to personal reasons. We strive to listen and understand their needs to the best of our ability. These are some practices I’ve observed that can be helpful in supporting the well-being of my team.
Where do you think organizations in the Middle East stand in tackling ageism in the workplace? How can organizations become more aware of unlearning this bias?
A.A: Ageism exists in all aspects of our lives, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Even at home, as much as we love our parents, there is a subconscious sense that “they don’t know what we know today,” while parents may feel that “these young kids don’t understand, we have seen more of life.” The same applies in the workplace. Boomers and millennials in management often believe that their experience is more important or critical to a company than the skills of young people with less experience. On the other hand, young people feel that their talent and exposure to the latest technologies, along with their understanding of the psychology of their peers, gives them an advantage in product development and marketing. The truth lies somewhere in between. It’s akin to a skilled race car driver, in this case, can be an experienced boomer or millennial—expertly driving a new Formula 1 car equipped with the latest technologies and gadgets, which would be Gen Z. It’s only when they work together and trust each other’s skills that magic happens and races are won. However, Middle Eastern organizations face an additional challenge. In our culture, the respect of elders—and the demand for respect from elders towards young people—is a cause for concern. This attitude is not likely to change quickly, as cultural shifts take time to evolve. In this case, it is important for both sides to understand that the office is not a community center or a social service; it is a profit-making enterprise. We should focus on the task at hand rather than demanding personal egos to be massaged. Conducting trainings, learning sessions, and workshops for both parties is critical to initiate change. Additionally, reversing roles for a day can help foster mutual understanding and appreciation. This will allow both sides to gain insight into each other’s perspectives.
I.M: In recent years the Middle East has come a long way with tackling ageism at work, there are a number of new laws that have been introduced in the Gulf region to specifically facilitate employment at old age, post-retirement. Encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing among employees of different age groups is key to countering the bias. Create opportunities for mentorship, reverse mentoring, and cross-generational teamwork. This can help challenge stereotypes and foster a more inclusive work environment for people of all age groups.
N.P: I understand that my opinion might not be popular, and I’m not implying what men or women should or shouldn’t do. However, I believe certain natural aspects cannot be denied, especially for women who prioritize family and have goals related to that aspect of life. Pregnancy and starting a family are significant milestones that women may need to consider at different stages. It’s not about whether the man should take care of the family or not; that’s not the focus here. In my team, I have people of different ages, and what I have realized is that I base their roles on their competency, regardless of age. If someone demonstrates the necessary skills and competencies for a particular role, it doesn’t matter if they are 60 or 22; they can still perform the job effectively. Passion and energy are important qualities, especially in younger individuals starting their careers. Having said that, I hired someone for a short-term contract when she was three months pregnant, which is a time when many employers might hesitate. However, I recognized her qualifications and abilities, and I was willing to give her the opportunity. It turned out to be a phenomenal experience, and she successfully fulfilled her responsibilities even after giving birth. In today’s organizations, I feel that there is a tendency to generalize and overlook individuals’ qualifications and abilities. It’s essential to consider the courses they have taken, what they have learned, and their capabilities instead of making assumptions.
Why, across various industries are we witnessing a trend among organizations to keep their Gen Z talent hidden? How can organizations make their Gen Z employees feel seen, and recognized?
A.A: One word: Fear! (from the older generation, not the organization). One solution: Provide security! By offering security to the older generation, we can enable the younger generation to thrive. There’s an interesting perspective to consider, which can be observed in many households— the relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. It is the fear of losing control that often hinders the mother-in-law from allowing the other person to flourish. While this may be a common aspect of human nature, it should not be the nature of organizations. To address this, it is important to hire individuals who are secure or help them feel secure in their roles.
I.M: While this might not apply to organizations, there could be several reasons as to why we see this trend, one obvious reason is the experience and skill gap, Gen-Z employees are relatively new to the workforce and may lack the experience and skills of their older counterparts. Some organizations might assign them to lower-level or less visible tasks initially to help them gain foundational knowledge and skills before taking on people / client-facing roles. To counter this and make Gen Z feel valued and included, organizations must foster a culture of inclusion. Create an inclusive and diverse work environment where all employees, regardless of age, feel welcome and respected. Encourage collaboration and input from all team members, including Gen-Z employees, and make sure their voices are heard.
N.P: I’ll be honest, I’ve been in a situation where I wanted to give recognition to someone but was worried about them being poached by another company. However, I believe it’s a combination of factors. They do deserve recognition, and I encourage them to share their achievements on platforms like LinkedIn. The concern in organizations often stems from loyalty, whether employees are loyal to the company or not. I’ve pondered this question extensively and found that different generations had loyalty regardless of the conditions. That’s why I strive to create an environment that goes beyond just a paycheck. To foster loyalty, I take certain steps. For instance, I ask them if there’s a brand they aspire to work with, and together we pitch to them. I have internal recognition mechanisms that boost their morale. Even if they do get poached, it’s important for them to feel comfortable discussing it with me and explore options together. While I can’t control everything, high turnover is common in the industry. I focus on sharing company culture and presence on social media, as it sends a powerful message. I believe in making employees loyal to the company through qualitative aspects like the brands they work with, the ability to showcase their work, and internal recognition systems.
Microaggression is one part of a compound bias young women in higher positions are facing today – is it something you’ve faced in your tenure as a professional? How do you recommend fellow sisters overcome this phase and become more conscious of their emotions?
A.A: I’ve faced it and it brings the worst out of a person. I have learned to control it over the years and I am very grateful for the learnings and the patience my team has shown. I have also noticed it with the younger generation who are starting out and I would like to reiterate that it is human nature, we all have flaws and we need to be more accepting towards each other. As a service-based agency, unfortunately, we do not get second chances from a client which led to moments of microaggression when a team member made a mistake. But I have accepted it and this is what I tell my senior management - To Err is Human – let them make mistakes and learn. Does that mean I am okay with losing a client? Yes 100%, but I’m not okay with my team and I turning into someone we aren’t because of the fear of losing a client or being too perfect.
I.M: Fair to say we have all been at the receiving end of microaggression and perhaps on the other side too. Step one is acceptance, all of us will experience it at some point in our professional journeys & therefore acknowledging and understanding that, will empower you to recognize when microaggressions occur and to respond effectively. While responding assertively is a good way to cope with it, developing emotional intelligence to navigate and manage your emotions effectively is equally important. This involves recognizing your emotional responses to microaggressions, understanding their impact on your well-being, and finding healthy ways to process and address those emotions.
N.P: I’ve certainly been through things like that. I’ve always been the kind of person who chooses a more peaceful way out. I understand that you cannot change or control anyone’s behavior or actions. Self-worth and self-confidence come from within, it shouldn’t be taken away by anyone else. I think my fitness journey has contributed so much to this. Because what my fitness journey echoes is not just the fact that I lost 50 kgs. It shows commitment and discipline. How I show up for myself every day. The promise that you keep to yourself should be your boundary. The ability to say no - when you cannot attach yourself to something that’s not worth it, it matters. These are the principles and the mindset that I’ve consciously been trying to build and recommend everyone to as well.
How do you recommend companies attract young talent? What is it that they need to do more of?
A.A: There’s nothing crazy the younger generation is asking for, it is simple. Show them it is a place that will make them feel – heard and appreciated and also provide them with career growth opportunities.
I.M: The younger generations appreciate feeling included & heard. First and foremost, develop a digital-first-compelling-employer-brand that resonates with young talent. Highlight the company’s mission, values, culture, and opportunities for growth. Leverage digital platforms, social media, and company websites to showcase employee stories, testimonials, and the positive impact the organization is making. Young talent often seeks work that aligns with their values and offers a sense of purpose. Clearly communicate how the company’s work contributes to a larger societal or environmental impact. Highlight opportunities for employees to make a difference and contribute to meaningful projects.
S.A.A: Learn the language of Gen-Z, by that, I don’t mean the internet slang, I mean really learning what makes them them. Obviously, not all Gen-Z are the same but take the time to get to know your younger employees. Additionally, organizations can establish formal mentorship programs that provide structure and support for mentors, making it easier for women to engage in mentorship. Encouraging women to take on mentorship roles and support other women can be achieved through various means. I believe we need to highlight the benefits and rewards of mentorship, emphasizing how it can positively impact both the mentor and the mentee. By sharing success stories and showcasing the value of mentorship, we can inspire more women to step into these roles. One personal experience that stands out is when my female director at the time encouraged me to take the lead on an important account. I was still at the beginning of my career in PR and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, but she really pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me realize that I could do anything I set my mind to. That experience has given me the confidence to take on any professional challenge that has been thrown my way since.
Why is it so crucial for women to take on mentorship roles and actively support younger women in their journey?
S.A.A: Encouraging women to take on mentorship roles and support other women can be achieved through various means. I believe we need to highlight the benefits and rewards of mentorship, emphasizing how it can positively impact both the mentor and the mentee. By sharing success stories and showcasing the value of mentorship, we can inspire more women to step into these roles. Additionally, organizations can establish formal mentorship programs that provide structure and support for mentors, making it easier for women to engage in mentorship.
This piece was first published in Communicate's Women to Watch Issue 2023.