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Through the looking glass: Gender diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Hanane Benkhallouk

Published: Updated:

Gender balance in the workplace is a discussion that comes up time and time again, and more often than not it is reduced into a simple HR box-ticking exercise – have we hired enough women this year? Often, it’s simply said that the reason less women are hired or promoted is because they were simply not successful candidates, and were not being purposefully excluded. This is most likely true; the exclusion probably isn't on purpose. But it still happens.

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As humans, we desire commonality, we want to find people who talk and think and act like we do. In recruitment, this is known as the ‘halo effect.’ In an article published by The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, it was found that female applicants are most discriminated against when applying for higher status jobs, with males favored for jobs that required leadership skills.

This is when we begin to find workplace homogeneity creeping in. This creates an environment where although everyone seemingly bonds well and has great interpersonal relationships, there is little room for innovation, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

In addition to the halo effect, it is easy to see why men feel alienated when the issue of gender equality in the workplace is discussed. Diversity initiatives often lead to tension and division, with men feeling they need to sacrifice their stature for women to be given a place at the table. The Harvard Business Review found that we need to focus on gender equity and balance as opposed to complete gender parity, in order to encourage a mutually beneficial outcome and discussion for men and women alike.

I believe that simply having a fifty-fifty ratio of men and women is not enough. Blanket quotas and forced hiring ratios do not ensure a productive team, in fact, they can often foster resentment and feelings of unfairness. Furthermore, just because a team is equally split by gender, it does not mean that the power balance or respect levels is split fairly. Often power is still skewed towards men. Instead of this pseudo-equality, we should ensure that teams are balanced and engaged in diversity, recognizing that it is the best, and only, way to move forward and compete in the global economy.

Business woman rushing to work running late. (Stock image)
Business woman rushing to work running late. (Stock image)

Gender inequality at work stems from wider societal values and issues regarding perception of gender and gender roles. It is not always the case that women are hired less or respected less at work because they are less educated. In fact, it is quite the contrary in the MENA region.

In terms of academics, in the Gulf, girls outperform boys. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai and Oman, girls consistently perform better in mathematics than boys, and between 30-60 percent of STEM graduates are women. Despite these figures, 13 out of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in employment are in the MENA region. This shows us that it isn't always education preventing gender equity in the workplace; there are other social factors at play.

The socio-economic environment of many oil-rich nations perpetuates the concept of a patriarchal structure, reinforcing pre-existing gender roles. This can lead to weak private sectors that are often unable to, or don’t want to, hire women due to the potential need for maternity pay and time off. There are numerous other social factors that influence women’s roles at work too, such as the ability to drive, legal restrictions, marriage status and gender norms.

Although there have been significant improvements regarding the perception of women in places such as the UAE, it is estimated that it will still take over 100 years for there to be complete gender parity.

It is important to see the bigger picture in terms of business here. The private sector cannot afford to ignore half of any potential workforce while competing locally or globally. Gender balance in the workplace encourages ingenuity, new approaches and divergent thinking which all leads to profit and business growth. So, how can we ensure that there is balance at work, despite the social inequality?

Companies need to create strategies to counteract toxic work environments – this could be conducting thorough exit interviews, fostering an open-minded atmosphere or implementing strict policies against harassment.

It is also imperative that women support one another throughout the triumphs and failures of their careers. Multiple studies have demonstrated that women do better in business when they are supportive of other women, as well as the fact that women benefit from collaboration over competition.

Women are quickly striving towards gender-balanced workplaces, but they need to be supported at all levels. Institutional sexism, patriarchal business models and HR box-ticking will all impede the progress of the movement. These issues must be overcome in order for us to ensure equal levels of respect and status at work. Women being supported can only be a good thing – resulting in a more diverse and creative team, a positive work environment and better business in a tough, global economy.

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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.