Supercharging Women In The Workplace: Tapping Into Opportunities In "The New Normal"

While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged us all over the past two years, it also illuminated the tremendous potential for technology to support the participation of women in the workforce who might otherwise have been excluded or actively opted out.

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As we prepare for emergence into a world after the COVID-19 crisis, the universal truth still holds that women are not more or less competent or qualified than men. However, women continue to face significantly more challenges and barriers to career advancement than men, and the coronavirus pandemic brought this into sharp relief.

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Some of these challenges are directly in the workplace, where many women still find that they must work harder, and provide more evidence of their competence than men. Other challenges come from the invisible labor at home from both housework and caregiving that continues to fall disproportionally on women.

The challenges were particularly acute for working mothers, who suddenly found themselves trying to maintain professional productivity, while taking on full-time roles as teachers and caregivers at the same time. It's no wonder then that many women opted to step out of the workforce amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. In fact, the Lean In Organization found that during the pandemic, one in four women considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, creating a potential crisis for companies.

Indeed, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years has not only slowed down progress towards greater gender equity in the workplace, but has also set it back. According to the World Economic Forum, it will now take almost 142.4 years to close the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa alone.

When I look at these trends, it would be easy to get discouraged, and yet, I find myself cautiously optimistic about the potential for true structural change in how we work in a post-pandemic world, and what it could mean for attracting women to the workforce, and retaining them over time.

Accelerated technology adoption during the pandemic has reshaped our ways of working. Individuals now have tremendous flexibility with how and where work gets done, and employers are much more open to both remote and hybrid working models. What I find exciting about this is that the potential models for work can evolve as women's lives and responsibilities evolve. Women can benefit from these new norms to balance their professional ambitions more easily with other aspects of their lives, whether those are caregiving responsibilities, cultural norms, or other factors.

There are proven benefits to companies that achieve greater gender diversity that should provide strong motivation to maintain this flexibility. Research conducted by the Lean In Organization over the past decade shows companies with the highest proportion of women on executive committees earned a 47% higher rate of return on equity than companies with no female executives. Additionally, companies that are in the top 25% for gender diversity are 27% more likely to outperform their national industry average in terms of profitability. Simply put, improved gender balance is beneficial for business.

Related: Time For A Reset: What The COVID-19 Crisis Might Mean For Gender Equality

Companies in the Middle East are already accelerating their efforts to regain the ground lost during the pandemic. Since the start of the year, over 20 major multinational companies including Coca-Cola, Danone, Dubai Holding, Majid Al Futtaim, PepsiCo, BASF, and Kearney Middle East, to name a few, recently signed the UAE Pledge on Gender Balance, committing to have 30% of their leadership positions occupied by women by 2025.

It's easy to focus on how mature businesses benefit, but startups also derive the same benefits from better gender diversity. In fact, in many ways, startups should have the upper hand when it comes to attracting women since they are more structurally agile. With less investment in legacy systems and in their ways of working, small companies can be more responsive in creating and evolving work environments that both attract and retain high quality female talent.

As companies evaluate whether they return to business as usual, or embrace the new technology enabled opportunities that COVID-19 has accelerated, how we think about attracting top female talent -and the packages that we put on the table for them- will require a shift in thinking. Men and women alike are reassessing their priorities and it is highly possible that many candidates, especially in high-powered sectors and jobs, will place significantly more value on having the opportunity to blend their work and home life in a way that enables them to be happier and more productive.

So, how do we as executives, managers, and recruiters maximize the added value of these individuals to our businesses, while adjusting to the new requirements of the post-COVID-19 candidate? In what is currently a talent constrained market in the GCC, any company, small or large, focused on establishing a strong strategy to attract and retain women should, as a starting point, consider focusing on four tactics:

- Leverage technology Invest in solutions that enable a range of flexible and remote working models to enable work-life balance.

- Showcase role models Demonstrate flexibility around ways of working from the leadership level on down, and showcase what success looks like.

- Cultivate open dialogue Encourage open channels of communication to enable your organization to identify and respond to the needs of women with innovative ways of working.

Experiment to find the right balance There is no one-size-fits-all solution to attracting women in the workforce. For some organizations, a fully remote solution may be the right fit, but others may find a hybrid model enables a more potent mix of culture, collaboration, and ultimately, business outcomes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged us all over the past two years, it also illuminated the tremendous potential for technology to support the participation of women in the workforce who might otherwise have been excluded or actively opted out. Our challenge now is to resist the natural inclination to slide back to the old ways, and instead maintain the adaptability of a technologically enhanced work environment to lessen the hurdles women must navigate to succeed in the workplace.

Related: Why The COVID-19 Crisis Could Give The MENA's Female Entrepreneurs An Edge