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Addressing workplace disparities: SAWI's role in the MENA region

SAWI logoIn the vast landscape of career progression in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women's voices resonate with their shared experiences and observations of the enduring struggle for equality in the workplace. Across several sectors, their stories reveal many challenges and unachieved aspirations, shedding light on the urgent need to create fair and supportive policies and practices that foster a more inclusive workplace.

Towards inclusion: women's narratives of workplace challenges

Amina, from Morocco's healthcare sector, questions the wait for parity in career opportunities, stating, “How long should we, as women, wait before we really have equal opportunities in our careers?”. Zahra emphasizes the need for formal HR policies that ensure equitable treatment in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) sector, stressing, “We can’t do it without clear HR policies!” Similarly, in the financial services sector, both Laila from Kuwait and Mona from Bahrain express frustration regarding the effectiveness of promotions. They highlight concerns about promotions lacking fairness or relevance within their respective workplaces, implying that such things are limited to “something we study in books”. In Tunisia, Donia's experience in healthcare shows that promotions often occur in secret behind closed doors, based on personal relationships without considering merit. Meanwhile, voices from Algeria's education sector prioritize reliable income over career progression. Ahlam reflects on her decision to remain in her current job or profession, stating, “The only thing that makes me stay is the stable salary that is the same for men and women.”

These insights are part of data collected by the Support and Accelerate Women's Inclusion (SAWI) Project to understand and address gender disparities in the MENA. Led by Telfer professor Charlotte Karam, the project is based at the American University of Beirut, in partnership with Telfer School of Management, and funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) at the U.S. Department of State.

The SAWI Project is an interdisciplinary, multi-country, multi-sector, multilingual, and multigenerational collaborative network of organizations and individuals committed to accelerating progress towards more inclusive workplaces and workforces. SAWI's collaborative approach involves engaging local experts, decision-makers, and leaders in driving systemic change through various initiatives that create inclusive and dignified workplaces across the MENA region. The project has become a scholar activists’ model for participatory impact.

Closing the data deficit

In the MENA region, the labour force participation rate for women stands at just 20.4%, the lowest rate globally as reported by The World Bank (2022). This statistic is attributed to various factors, including cultural and social norms that prioritize traditional gender roles. In many societies, men are viewed as the primary breadwinners, while women are expected to focus primarily on household and family duties. The World Economic Forum (2022) further highlights the gender pay gap in the Middle East, estimating that it will take 115 years to close. While this timeframe appears shorter compared to the global average of 267.6 years, it still raises the question: can we afford to wait that long?

There is a pressing need for concerted efforts to increase women’s participation in the labour force, through the development of inclusive practices and policies that support women in the workplace, including recruitment, retention, and promotion. To create effective strategies tailored to the region, it is important to have data from the region itself. Over the past four years, SAWI has been focusing on reducing the data deficit by collecting primary data from employers and women across the region. In partnership with local country partners in 11 countries, two waves of data were collected from 3,274 local employers and 981 women, helping to better understand women’s recruitment, retention, and promotion in regional workplaces.

Addressing disparities through tailored solutions

Introducing the Knowledge is Power (KIP) Index and the Lived Experience (LE) Index, ground-breaking initiatives by SAWI resulting from its impact research project in the MENA region. These indices provide country and sector-specific measurements of inclusivity in organizations' policies and practices, as well as a reflection of women’s experiences within these organizations.

The KIP Index serves as a critical tool for assessing inclusion in HR policies and practices, tracking local employer perspectives on recruitment, retention, and promotion to provide valuable insights into work dynamics. Additionally, the LE Index captures women’s perceptions of workplace realities through interviews. Together, these indices shed light on the challenges and opportunities for fostering inclusive policies and practices in the region's workplaces.

The findings from the analyzed data were presented at a recent SAWI event titled "Inclusion Insights 2024: SAWI's 4-year journey to crafting the MENA Women's Inclusions Indices." This two-day event highlighted the progress of the SAWI project in tackling the lack of data regarding women's economic inclusion in the MENA region and provided an in-depth examination of employer policies and the experiences of women in the workplace. Nearly 200 individuals - employers, HR managers, decision makers, and others, from the 8 MENA countries actively participated in the online event via Zoom, and over 300 others watched on SAWI's YouTube channel. The first day was dedicated to "A Deep Dive into Data from 3,000+ Regional Employers," while the second day focused on "Amplifying Voices - Insights from 900+ Women on Workplace Experiences in the Region." On both days, participants engaged in various activities, including polls and breakout rooms, sharing insights on how the findings resonated with their respective sectors, and brainstorming recommendations for employers to follow in order to enhance the inclusiveness of their current practices.

The data uncovered by the indices also serves as the foundation for evidence-based solutions: SAWI has and continues to build tools and trainings for organizations trying to navigate a complex, ever-changing, and challenging landscape. In March 2024, SAWI rolled out a second iteration of its Gender-Lens Investing Training Program, an approach to investing that targets and improves investment processes and structures to advance women's inclusion in the workforce. SAWI also ran two training programs that aim to empower HR managers, decision-makers and executives to adopt women-inclusive recruitment, retention, and promotion strategies in a rapidly changing regional economic environment.

Next steps for SAWI

SAWI continues its dedication to closing the data deficit in the region. In January 2024, SAWI launched the third wave of data collection for the KIP and LE indices. Over the coming year, SAWI will focus on collecting and analyzing data on inclusive recruitment, retention, and promotion in the MENA. Additionally, SAWI is currently conducting a readiness assessment on enacting Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) legislation across the eight MENA countries. This involves extensive research and interviews with key stakeholders. The results of these endeavors will be showcased at an event later this year.

This article was written by Axelle Meouchy and Elissar Saad

Axelle MeouchyAxelle Meouchy is a Research Associate and Curriculum Coordinator at SAWI, American University of Beirut. She is also a PhD Candidate at Tilburg University. Her research focuses on uncovering key contextual factors in national legislation that hinder equal access to the formal labor market.

Elissar SaadElissar Saad is a Research Associate at SAWI, American University of Beirut, and a PhD Candidate at Saint Joseph University. Her research focuses on the language of national legislation and its economic and social impact on women, offering recommendations and promoting strategies.