Creating a business environment where diversity and inclusion thrives

Dr Abdulwahab al-Sadoun
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Workforce diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been a top-of-mind issue for leaders in the Arabian Gulf. Efforts to increase the share of female participation in the workforce have for decades gone hand in hand with educational reforms, developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, both male and female, as well as introducing voluntary and compulsory workforce nationalization targets at firms in all sectors. The chemical industry is no exception.

State of gender diversity in Arabian Gulf chemical industry

Regional industry leaders increasingly recognize the value of fostering gender diversity and inclusion at their firms, employing female professionals and offering them equal opportunities to have senior leadership positions, developing young female graduates – as well as mentoring and building an enabling environment – that will encourage them to enter an otherwise male-dominated field, and pursue a lifelong career in the sector.

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Though still modest, the number of female professionals employed in the Arabian Gulf has increased significantly during the past decade. The share of women in the overall workforce has doubled over the last 10 years, from 3 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2019.

The UAE has the highest gender diversity in the chemical industry where 14 percent of the workforce are women. In Saudi Arabia, the largest economy and most populous country in the GCC, women represent only 4 percent of the industry’s workforce, the lowest number in the region.

Despite signs of improvement, female participation in the regional chemical industry is progressing at a slow rate. Across all GCC countries, a mere 2-3 percent improvement in gender diversity has been registered since 2010. The Arabian Gulf chemical industry lags behind the Western world, where diversity and inclusion are at a much more mature state. When compared to North America, where female professionals hold a 27 percent share in total chemical industry employment, the region has a long way to go.

Progress in STEM is a great cause for optimism

Several factors contribute to the Arabian Gulf region falling behind other parts of the world in terms of gender parity. Some of these factors are related to specific cultural norms and others are linked to inclusivity gaps at universities’ science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The modest share of women in the regional industry is attributed to the fact that universities and vocational institutes were not admitting women to STEM disciplines.

With time, this practice was not only discontinued, but the balance of male versus female STEM graduates was completely reversed in favor of women, as the region boasts one of the highest numbers of female engineering graduates globally.

According to UNESCO, 60 percent of engineering students in the Arabian Gulf are women[1] – a figure much higher than that seen in universities across the US or Europe.

Continuously developing female graduates and encouraging them to enter STEM subjects and pursue a career in the field of chemistry and science is the key to building a diverse, sustainable, and inclusive workforce.

Chemical companies in the region have been making strides in this area, with the introduction of various talent development programs, sponsoring students to pursue science-based degrees, working closely with universities and offering internship programs to the young and burgeoning talent in the region.

Progress must be celebrated, but more work needed

General view of the Borouge petrochemical facility at ADNOC's Ruwais Industrial Complex in Ruwais, United Arab Emirates May 14, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)
General view of the Borouge petrochemical facility at ADNOC's Ruwais Industrial Complex in Ruwais, United Arab Emirates May 14, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)

The industry has come a long way since its early days on gender inclusivity. Companies with significant critical mass such as Saudi Aramco have the highest share of women in their workforce, with several leading female professionals working as chief engineers on oil rigs, an environment that was traditionally considered harsh and ill-equipped for women working in the industry.

The GCC chemical industry is taking the necessary steps needed to narrow the gender gap, a strategy that is aligned with the Gulf countries’ national visions to increase female participation in the labor force. Shining examples among GPCA member companies are Maha Mulla Hussain, Chairman and Managing Director of Kuwait’s Petrochemical Industries Company and Muna al-Muhairi, CEO, Fertil, who sits on the GPCA Board of Directors.

Overall regional figures indicate that there is certainly room for improvement, with the industry falling within the “steady” category on the D&I front according to research conducted by GPCA.

If they are to lead by example, regional chemical companies need to work on fostering diversity and putting it to work through inclusion. Areas for improvement include the representation and attraction of diverse talent at chemical firms today. Acting on these key drivers to maintain and accelerate D&I will be key moving forward for regional chemical companies, especially when it comes to increased female participation.

Gender inclusivity makes good business sense

Increasing the share of women in the regional workforce, and more importantly, appointing more female professionals in senior leadership roles, has grown in importance in recent years.

Workforce equity and inclusivity are a key part of the wider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) framework. Increasingly public companies – which include a growing number of chemical companies in the region – will face scrutiny from investors on the number of females employed in leadership roles, particularly in C-suite and board-level positions.

Government regulations can help to support progress in this direction. On 14 March the UAE made it compulsory for at least one female director to be appointed on the boards of all listed companies – a significant stride in the leadership’s efforts to close the gender gap and offer equal opportunities for women in the region.

Employing diverse talent brings better performance, increases companies’ competitiveness, improves their image, and enables greater innovation. The companies that have a significant share of female leaders outperform their peers, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company. Industry leaders in the region must act on this insight, as the sector faces an ageing workforce as well as growing demand for digital skills, new ideas and innovation.

What next for gender diversity in the region?

Increasing the share of women in the regional industry workforce is the first step to closing the gap. What companies will need to focus on next is establishing an inclusive culture, with support from the top. Management must ensure that diversity goals are met, and internal groups and programs that will help women feel included are created and supported.

Appointing female professionals to leadership roles will lead to greater gender diversity both because organizations with women leaders hire more women and because women may be attracted to companies where they can see that other women have already achieved success. It is time for companies to recognize D&I as a vital element of their wider responsibilities to not just the business but to the society in which we live.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.