Striking A Balance: Juggling Parenthood And Entrepreneurship in the GCC How entrepreneurship enables women in the UAE to have a healthier work-life and work-motherhood balance.
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How mothers juggle parenthood and entrepreneurship is a timeless question. Yet, it seems more pertinent after the COVID-19 crisis, because the pandemic brought about two inter-connected phenomena. Firstly, it caused numerous challenges to women's careers, urging them to seek more flexibility through entrepreneurship, and secondly, it encouraged a rapid digital transformation that unleashed a plethora of new business opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Therefore, it is little wonder why, for example in the UAE, LinkedIn's data published in the World Economic Forum's 2022 Global Gender Gap Report stated that female entrepreneurship in the UAE grew 68% after the pandemic struck. Arising from this is the question of whether -and if so, how- entrepreneurship enables women in the UAE to have a healthier work-life and work-motherhood balance. Ludmila Yamalova, founder and Managing Partner of Dubai-based law practice, HPL Yamalova & Plewka, and a mother of two, considers herself "extremely fortunate in being an entrepreneur and a mother in the UAE."
According to Yamalova, "UAE maternity polices may appear insufficient for many, but in relative terms, they are more generous than in the US, for example, where there is no national statutory paid maternity, paternity, or parental leave in the private sector. In other words, no guaranteed maternity leave. Employers can provide it, but are not obligated. In the UAE, depending on the circumstances, there is 90 days of paid leave, plus unpaid leave and other benefits."
Ludmila Yamalova, founder and Managing Partner of HPL Yamalova & Plewka
Source: HPL Yamalova & Plewka
Maternity leave policies in the UAE are determined by the country's Labor Law No. 33 of 2021, which came into effect in February 2022. It increased maternity leave to 60 days, 45 of which are at full-pay, and 15 days at half-pay. The law also envisages maternity leave to be available after the first six months of pregnancy in cases of miscarriages or death of newborns. In addition, maternity leave can be further extended by 30 days at full pay, and an additional 30 days at no pay, in the cases of mothers needing to care for children who are sick, or children of determination. Besides that, for a period of six months after returning from maternity leave, a woman is entitled to up to one hour per day to feed her child.
Here, Yamalova points out that the law expressly prohibits companies from terminating or discriminating women on the grounds of either pregnancy or maternity. However, as a practicing lawyer in the UAE, she admits to having witnessed employer behaviors that don't fall within these norms. "One particular issue, which we have seen come up a few times in the recent years is with regards to single moms," she notes. "Until recently, it was more difficult for single mothers to sponsor their children, for immigration purposes. The immigration laws have changed recently, making it easier for single mothers to sponsor their children... Another issue we've seen is employers often claiming that without a marriage certificate, employees are not entitled to maternity benefits under the UAE laws. This is simply not true. The UAE laws do not, in any way, make any type of maternity or parental benefits be conditional on a marriage. Mothers, married or unmarried, are treated the same, in terms of employment benefits. Similarly, health insurance providers often claim that, without a marriage certificate, there is no maternity or baby insurance coverage. In doing so, they rely on some alleged law and/or policy. This too is incorrect. There is no law preventing insurance companies from offering maternity or baby coverage for unmarried mothers. And I have yet to see an insurance policy, which expressly includes such a condition."
In Saudi Arabia, female workers are entitled to full-term maternity leave of 10 weeks, which can be extended for one unpaid month. Bahrain allows 60 fully paid days of maternal leave, which is applicable from the first day of the birth of a child; once the mother returns back to work, she is also allowed a daily two-hour breastfeeding leave. In Qatar, female employees are entitled to receive a 100% paid maternity leave for 50 days, while Kuwait envisages 30 fully paid leave days before, and 40 fully paid leave days after giving birth. All GCC countries envision extensions of paid maternity leave to care for a sick child, and also forbid employers from terminating or nullifying the working contract of a female worker for using the complete period of maternity leave, or in other cases, during the time period of the maternity leave. Not to overlook paternity leave policies in the GCC countries, in the UAE, Article 32 of the UAE Labor Law allows fathers a right to paternity leave of five days, within the six months of child's birth. New fathers get three fully paid days of paternity leave in Saudi Arabia, only one fully paid day in Bahrain, while there is no statutory paternity leave in Qatar and Kuwait.
Erika Doyle, founder of Drink Dry. Source: Drink Dry
Since maternity leave rules are envisaged for female employees and not for female entrepreneurs, it seems interesting to check whether female employers allow themselves the same freedom as they would to their female employees. A mother of three, Erika Doyle, founder of the Dubai-based non-alcohol and halal-compliant drinks shop, Drink Dry, believes that there should be no blanket approach to all women and their pregnancy or maternity leave requests. "Every pregnancy and every maternity leave feels different to a mum-to-be, and every woman should have a choice to decide what feels right for them, should they choose to take one month, six months, or 12 months off," Doyle says. "I say this from a personal experience– I took six months off with my first born in the UK, and I took two days off only with my third one here in Dubai, and the most significant part here is that both choices were good choices, and they represented how I felt, and what I needed, at that time. We should allow and empower expectant mothers to create their own ideal maternity leave scenarios."
With Houda Naji, we have an example of a woman who got back to work almost immediately after giving birth– indeed, she founded her Dubai-based digital marketing agency, Younoh, after giving birth to her second daughter. "Before my second daughter was born, I decided to leave my job," Naji recalls. "I wanted to spend more time with both of my daughters. It was all about making our days count, and being a close-knit family. And that is when i decided to start my business, and start learning about it via courses online and in person, as well as attending events, whenever I could, to start building a network."
Today, Naji proudly states that Younoh is a seven-figure business that employs nine people. And for her female employees, Naji ensures a three-month paid maternity leave, as well as remote working for another three months. "Working from home for an extra three months allows women the breathing room they need to deal with issues they might have in that period, without losing their sense of professional identity or purpose," Naji explains. "This is a nice transitional period between full-time parenting and the workforce.
Houda Naji, founder of Younoh. Source: Younoh
Doyle also calls for adequate psychological support before and after childbirth. "The physiological support for the challenges that women face should also take into account the various cultural nuances– do certain cultures openly share about their mental struggles? Is it acceptable to discuss your mental health with strangers?" Tania Kaddoura, a Dubai-based sports physio-therapist, fitness influencer, and an ambassador of the FrontRunner community by Japanese sportwear brand Asics, and a mother of one, agrees with Doyle, adding, "The cons of being a working mother in Dubai include cultural expectations, as there may be certain expectations placed on mothers to prioritize their role as a mother over their professional aspirations. Also, the cost of living in Dubai is high, which can be a challenge for working mothers, who are trying to balance their expenses, and save money for their families."
Another aspect of being a working mother in the UAE is having to juggle between one's personal and professional lives- and this seems to be a given regardless of whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur. "The common misconception is that if you work for yourself you get to choose when and how you work, but the reality is that you simply work all the time," Doyle says. "The lines get very blurred between your personal and professional life, and, inevitably, some parts of your life do get affected. I try to make a difference whenever I can to encourage and ease the life of any working mum– such as sending a quick encouraging email to a fellow mum following a corporate call where her baby was uncontrollably sobbing during her pitch!"
Doyle also remembers having a first interview with a potential new employee just three days before giving birth to her third child. "When we met a week later, I had already had my baby, and I was trying to be very professional so not to put him off working for a small startup run by a woman with three kids under the age of four, one of which was less than a week old, with zero difference experience in business," she says. "But within the first 10 minutes, we had to address the elephant in the room, as I was visibly no longer pregnant. It was quite comical though, because it was a highly unexpected situation for my colleague, and I don't think many men have been placed in that position."
Tania Kaddoura, a Dubai-based sports physiotherapist, fitness influencer, and an ambassador of the FrontRunner community by Japanese sportwear brand Asics
Here, Yamalova also shares an anecdote from the time when her son was only a few months old. "I had a court appointment in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), and my son and his nanny were in the courts waiting with me, but things dragged on longer than expected, plus there were documents which I needed to update and finalize," she says. "My son got hungry, and so, there I was sitting in the Dubai Courts, working away, drafting, and nursing at the same time. The court personnel did not even blink. It was like business as usual."
Naji has a similar story to share. "When I first launched my business, I had set up a playroom specifically for my daughters and employees' kids within my office space," she says. "On one occasion, a client wanted to drop by for a meeting, while my kids happened to be with me. As he walked in and noticed the playroom, he was both taken aback and genuinely impressed by the dedicated space for children. His reaction was so strong that he found it challenging to concentrate fully on our meeting agenda. He mentioned how unique and considerate the setup was, reflecting my commitment not just to my business, but also to ensuring my children's comfort and happiness during work hours."
But as pleasant as this particular memory may be, Naji points out that it is not always easy to balance her role as a mother with the demands of her business. "One of my most significant challenges was maintaining connections with potential clients," she explains. "The rhythm of business often beckoned me to attend networking events in the evenings, or required me to embark on business trips. With my young daughters at home, these tasks became incredibly challenging, if not heart-wrenching at times. I often found myself torn between the prospects of expanding my business, and the longing to be present for every bedtime story, every milestone, every tear, and every laugh. This emotional tug-of-war often meant I had to decline opportunities, leading to missed business potentials."
Tatyana Bakalchuk, founder and CEO of Wildberries. Source: Wildberries
There's a lot to learn about juggling motherhood and entrepreneurship from Tatyana Bakalchuk, the founder and CEO of Russian e-commerce retailer Wildberries, which she started up in 2004 while on maternity leave. Today, Bakalchuk is a mother of seven who is also known for being Russia's first self- made woman billionaire. According to Bakalchuk, there is no one-size-fits-all advice for mothers who are entrepreneurs. "The main challenge has always been the urge to do everything all the time, to combine the roles of both mother and leader," she says. "Like any working mother, I periodically reproach myself for not spending enough time with my family. This is much easier now because of instant messaging, video conferencing, and remote work that has taken root everywhere. Now, you can work almost 24/7, and still manage to be a good mom."
That said, Bakalchuk insists that more education is needed for new parents. "I wouldn't want to share my personal experiences, as, basically, most new mums face the same difficulties and challenges, but I would rather draw attention to the need for educational work with future mothers and young families, because 90% of all mistakes and difficulties can be avoided if you are aware of them," she says. "And I would like to say this to both new and future mums: do not be scared to seek help if you feel you need it, do not try to do everything at once, and trust your gut. These tips might be banal and expected, but this is exactly the case, when even simple truths must be repeated daily."
Yamalova also points out the need for working mothers to manage their expectations. "Accept that we are merely human," she says. "We take one day at a time. Try to do and be the best we can be for that one day. And be ready for storms and turbulence for the next day, but know that, that too will pass. One foot in front of the other. And then repeat. That's life."
Meanwhile, Naji's advice is to focus on being present rather than flawless. "Accept the messiness and uncertainty that comes with juggling parenthood and business," she concludes. "Treasure the moments that pull you out of your routine, whether it's a child's giggle, a hug, or a painting made on the fly during a business call. They are gentle nudges toward remembering the bigger picture of why we put in the effort."