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Untapped Potential: Why Companies Must Act Quickly To Welcome (And Retain) Working Mothers The talent is there, the willingness is there- but there are needs that the corporate and startup worlds must address head-on, if we are to encourage and retain the talent of working mothers within a successful ecosystem.

By Perihan Abouzeid

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Theoretically, there's no doubt that the working world is gearing towards helping women in the workplace. Statistics around the importance of women in leadership roles, and the benefit that female CEOs and senior management bring to the bottom line are there for everyone to see. And while female founders receive significantly less funding opportunities than their male counterparts, the growth of women owned enterprises is on the rise.

The facts are bare though- it's less about breaking glass ceilings and venture capital fundraising, and more about the basic, grassroots support required globally in getting women into work or back to work, with opportunities decimated after the COVID-19 pandemic, and then actually keeping them there. It's thus more important than ever to recognize the barriers to not only career progression, but to entry itself, on the woman who wants to work, return to work, or feel that she can do so successfully whilst raising a family.

Major world events in the recent past may have obliterated the progress made in workplace gender equality over the past 50 years, but we cannot ignore the fact that retaining women in the workplace hasn't been a problem even before them, particularly in certain industries. For instance, in science and technology, the GCC region is crying out for participation from skilled workers, and, as such, it's a career path I often recommend to young women looking for focus, especially with the expectancy of a local boom in opportunities. Upskilling and training is vital at the outset, but when it comes to talk of flexibility, the future seems less rosy.

Globally, the percentage of women in the workplace is lower than ever. Typically, flexible or motherhood-friendly options were affected hugely by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications. The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce for a company lean towards a positive bottom line; we know this- yet, why is it so hard to attract and retain female talent?

The talent is there, the willingness is there- but there are needs that the corporate and startup worlds must address head-on, if we are to encourage and retain the talent of working mothers within a successful ecosystem.

Speaking in New York, United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres' remarked to the Group of Friends on Gender Parity to mark the fifth anniversary of the Gender Parity Strategy: "Gender inequality is essentially a question of power. Our male-dominated world and male-dominated culture damage both men and women. And to transform power relations, we need equality between men and women in leadership, decision-making, and participation at all levels. Achieving gender parity is not only a personal priority, it is a strategic goal for the organization. And it's vital for the United Nations to represent the values it stands for -the values enshrined in the charter– and to lead by example."

Related: We Need An Entrepreneurial Spirit To Tackle Women's Issues In The Middle East

The UN itself is not immune, with self-confessed "slow progress" on gender parity within professional staff. It's important to remember here that balancing work and family life is not just a female issue; it's a society issue. Supporting staff with the flexibility and balance required to bring their best selves to work needs to happen quickly, regardless of ongoing and chaotic world order. This is about humans. Women need their physical and mental health supported to be able to raise their families, and to become useful and successful employees.

Maternity policies and equal opportunities surrounding career trajectory, irrespective of family status, must all be in place and transparent to help women make secure decisions on where they work and for whom. That's not all, even within the startup culture that is so positive across the Middle East, we see an expectation of long hours and "hustle" as standard. The latest labor law decree in the UAE (2021) means that employers are allowed to grant longer leave periods for new mothers at their discretion, but the rules specify the minimum number of days that working women are entitled to take for maternity leave.

Too many organizations are looking to take advantage of an endemic "presenteeism" culture, and too many women simply do not know their rights, or have the confidence to ask. Policies should be explained and easily accessible. Nobody should be afraid to ask questions around their contractual circumstances. Women's physical health, at various life stages, is not something we can keep ignoring or dismissing. From the right and need to breastfeed her children, through to the challenges brought by pregnancy and menopause and other caregiving roles, support for all of this should be a given, again, on a human level, and it is most definitely the basis for a happy and engaged workforce. 47% of working mothers consider switching careers due to the lack of breastfeeding support they have experienced at work.

As a reminder, in the UAE, it is now -finally- illegal to terminate the service of a working woman, or give her a warning because of pregnancy, of obtaining maternity leave, or of her absence from work in accordance with the provisions of the latest articles. Helping women access solid maternity leave and processes, and supporting them upon return includes offering seemingly "micro" details that are an oversight to many. Mothers returning to work may need time and access to comfortable and sanitary spaces for expressing breastmilk, for example, or flexible working options around childcare issues or potential sickness within the family. When women feel supported by their management and peers, the loyalty to the company and the rewards are manifold, and we all know that it is cheaper to retain a good employee than to hire a new one. For every $1 spent by companies on supportive maternity programs, they stand to earn $3 back- not forgetting that talent retention rises to 67% also.

Progressive organizations are now offering solid programs for "returners"- the untapped talent market within women who have been out of the workplace whilst raising children is exponential. Ageism has no place in a modern business; it's short-sighted to assume that once a woman takes time out to have or raise children, her career pathway has ended. Employers must also no longer see the rights and needs of working women as a stick to bar their career path, or even as a "nice to do"- it's imperative, and both your company balance sheet and your employees will thank you for it.

Related: Seven Lessons For Women In Business (From Other Women In Business)

Perihan Abouzeid

Founder and CEO, PeriCare

Perihan Abouzeid is the founder and CEO of PeriCare, the MENA’s first femtech startup focused on building products for working mothers and mothers on the go.

Abouzeid is on a purpose-led mission to improve opportunities for women in the workplace, and to work with organizations to ensure that parents are able to take their rightful place in the workplace in a way that supports not only themselves, but their children, and the wider economy as a whole. 

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