As GCC countries make the transition from economies dependent on oil to economies driven by the insights and intellect of their nationals, one of the most valuable—and untapped—resources available is the economic energies of Gulf women.
Private and semi-private companies in the GCC are under enormous pressure to nationalize their workforce, owing to a combination of high regional unemployment and a currently outsized proportion of expatriate workers in the region. There is a clear opportunity in the region to address these issues by employing greater numbers of GCC women. Additionally, and perhaps more important, bringing more women into the workforce can give these companies a competitive edge.
However, thus far the talent pool of women employees in the region remains largely underused, due to social, occupational, and legal challenges. GCC governments have begun taking steps to address these issues, but industry cannot wait for governments to impose the change from above. Instead, companies will need to implement internal programs to recruit, develop, and retain women employees.
Three steps are critical for private-sector companies that want to successfully attract and retain talented women.
First, GCC companies must have a senior champion who can make a business case for the need to have women in the workforce. Doing so is not without challenges: There is little in the way of objective, broad-based research that clearly establishes the importance of integrating women in the workforce. However, anecdotal evidence from a multitude of companies shows the value that a strong female talent base can engender.
Second, after making the business case, companies must develop a comprehensive approach to talent management. This begins with hiring: seeking out the most promising female candidates from women’s colleges and vocational institutes, sponsoring promising candidates in their studies, and partnering with leading technology training institutions and high-tech companies with training programs.
Companies should also consider a mentorship program that pairs less experienced staffers with more experienced women; focused mentoring may accelerate women’s development into leadership positions and also help women navigate particularly difficult transitions in their career, such as pregnancy and return from maternity leave.
Another key part of managing talent is evaluating employees fairly and objectively. All performance scores should be based on specific outcomes (such as sales numbers), and the evaluation process should include multiple sources of input, including managers, colleagues, and subordinates. While this is good practice for all employees, it is critical to implement when evaluating women employees in a male-dominated environment. The last element of talent management is retention: Once the company has taken measures to recruit, hire, develop, and evaluate the women in its workforce, it should devote equal effort to retaining women employees and ensure that they stay professionally fulfilled and motivated. Doing so requires fairly traditional HR levers such as compensation and benefits, opportunities for career advancement, and work-life balance, as well as the intangible elements that make employees feel motivated to work hard each day: recognition, a sense of purpose, trust, and a connection with colleagues and the organization.
The third and final step is to recognize that integrating women in the workforce is a complex initiative with potential ramifications for the entire organization, and thus requires an extensive change management strategy. It is not sufficient to simply prepare women to join the labor force; management must prepare the rest of the employees to make the integration of women a company-wide success as well.
This may require overcoming misguided but still prevalent perceptions among some about the proper roles of women in society, or their ability to succeed in the private-sector workplace. Because these perceptions can be stubborn, changing them within companies must start from the top. Companies must line up support and commitment from senior executives, who must lead by example, for instance by frequently working with female employees. At lower levels, the company should identify middle management champions for the program who can begin spreading awareness of the program in advance, along with motivating their staff to embrace the change. Finally, companies will need to add a diversity-management component to the slate of mandatory training required of all employees.
Introducing women in larger numbers into the GCC private-sector workforce will not be easy, and there is a risk of moving too fast. But in the long term, this change is inevitable. Women have the education and—more important—the desire to play a more central role in the region’s labor market. Companies that adopt an intelligent strategy to manage this transition will gain a competitive edge, through a workforce that is more engaged and better reflects the GCC population at large.