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SAWI: A Feminist Research Project for Inclusive Workplaces

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Born out of a series of scholar-activist initiatives that aim to improve the workplace experiences of women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the SAWI Project, an acronym for Support and Accelerate Women's Inclusion, is an ongoing feminist participatory action-based research project hosted since 2019 at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and recently added to Telfer’s research portfolio.

Support and Accelerate Women's Inclusion

The SAWI Project - “sawi” meaning “to equate” in Arabic - is an interdisciplinary, multi-country, multi-sector, multi-lingual and multi-generational collaborative project. SAWI’s work is predicated on partnership, co-creation, and co-leadership, and aims to accelerate progress toward more inclusive workplaces and workforces in the MENA region.

Working Logo of the SAWI projectclosely with local partners, the project engages researchers, employers, human resource practitioners, students, activists, universities, government entities, civil society organizations, and employee groups to forge pathways toward more dignified and inclusive workplaces and sustainable economies. The project takes an innovative approach to develop and implement relevant structural changes within local HR systems. It focuses on identifying the barriers to women’s recruitment, retention, and promotion, unpacking policies and cultural practices that perpetrate these barriers, and then lobbying for and applying the tools for change.

Funded through the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), SAWI has three main objectives:

  1. to map the current state of recruitment, retention and promotion policies and practices across the MENA region,
  2. to partner with regional employers to co-design and implement more inclusive HR systems, and
  3. to support the creation of a multistakeholder network championing more inclusive and dignified workplaces and economies in the region.

Charlotte Karam, Telfer professor and SAWI leadCharlotte Karam, project lead at SAWI and professor at the Telfer School of Management, explains: “Our project takes a very different angle from other more conventional initiatives that focus on building the capacity of women; we know there are many educated and capable women in the MENA region. Where women already have the capacity to engage, the problem lies in the exclusionary and oppressive structures that block entry and dignified retention. The problem does not lie with the women themselves. Therefore, a part of the solution must be to co-design with women, with employers, and with other stakeholders’ collective solutions to better identify and counteract the oppressive workplace structures – that is, to change the policies, norms and practices that exclude women from full and equitable economic and workplace participation.”

Professor Karam’s work leading HR policy change in the MENA led to recognition in 2021 by Apolitical as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy, and she received the 2021–2022 University of Ottawa Excellence in Knowledge Mobilization Award for her work on fighting sexual violence.

How SAWI came to be

Before SAWI was created, Professor Karam and her team led similar multi-stakeholder scholar-activist projects with the goal of improving the landscapes within which women work. This led to the creation of the Knowledge is Power (KIP) Project and the KIP Index and Lived Experience Index.

The KIP project focused on building momentum for anti-sexual harassment protections within Lebanese workplaces. In 2015, Professor Karam and her team started working with private and public sector organizations to develop and implement policies against sexual harassment in the workplace, despite the lack of national anti-harassment laws at the time.

This initiative actively mobilized many different stakeholders, encouraging academics, citizens, students, public and private sector representatives to hold workshops and conferences, support research, and raise public awareness. Building on the work done by other groups in this space, and working collaboratively with National Commission for Lebanese Women, the KIP project contributed significantly to the drafting and successful passing of the first anti-harassment law in Lebanon in 2020.

“It was this early work on sexual harassment that revealed the power of working collectively, and of building on the efforts of activists and advocates pushing for economic inclusion. What really spoke to me was the not only the power of mobilizing across sectors and stakeholders, but also the power of initiating a feminist project while working within a business school. Working with employers – even if only half converted to the cause – can result in significant protections and shifts in workplace structures and norms.” adds Professor Karam. The KIP Project’s anti-sexual harassment work was recognized with the “Innovations That Inspire” award by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), and has been featured in international media.

Magnifying glass with data barsThe second project, the KIP Index, began shortly after. This project focused on exploring other barriers faced by women in workplaces across the MENA region. It centered 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 over 3,310 local employers and 981 women, helping to better understand women’s recruitment, retention, and promotion in the region. The indices were also recognized by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) with a 2022 “Innovations That Inspire” award.

Collaborating to build and implement inclusive HR policies

These data were then used as the basis for the SAWI project, which was created to further mobilize employers and decision makers and build local capacity for positive change. The information collected served to develop locally relevant executive-level education mini-certificates in inclusive Recruitment, Retention, and Promotion (RRP) and provided the basis for customized training for over 566 managers and decision makers across the target countries and sectors.

“The SAWI project translates the collected data and moves beyond the idea of holding conversation for change, to actually partnering with employers to create the change. We hold hands with employers and together we develop more inclusive HR policies” Professor Karam adds. To date, SAWI has participated in the development of over 112 women centered RRP policies as well as related implementation strategies. As a result, the SAWI project has impacted over 195,400 employees by introducing these inclusive HR policies into workplaces. The SAWI project is now working on directly supporting select employers to action the policy implementation strategies.

Mobilizing knowledge, sharing expertise, and creating partnerships

Colourful illustration of two women having a conversationProfessor Karam and her team’s approach has always fostered interdisciplinary and multi-country exchanges, also called “Hiwar”, which means “conversation” in Arabic. This approach has been woven through all of the initiatives, beginning with the KIP project, progressing to the KIP index, and finally reaching the SAWI project. These conversations, or hiwar, included webinars, podcasts, blogs, and videos, all focused on the themes of inclusion, equity, and women's economic empowerment.

Chief among many events organized by the team is the SAWI Regional Roadmap for Workplace Inclusion webinar held in 2021. It attracted over 500 participants and raised awareness on the importance of building inclusive HR policies in the region. Most recently, in early 2023, SAWI hosted a series of three webinars on Multistakeholder mobilizing for economic inclusion, reaching over 260 participants and featuring a diversity of experts from multiple countries.

Additionally, as part of its efforts to mobilize knowledge for impact, SAWI is providing reports, roadmaps, and executive trainings. To date, these training opportunities have attracted over 565 decision-makers, 265 of which received training certification. The project also continues to raise awareness on the importance of supporting women's economic empowerment and creating more inclusive workplaces for a sustainable future through engaging videos and informative visual campaigns.

Professor Karam emphasizes the collective nature of this feminist work, which is made possible through working closely with multiple partners and co-investigators: “Our work is an example of feminist participatory action research. We work in collaboration with our country partners, with women, with employers, and with others who are living and working in each of our target countries. Being on the ground – actually immersed in the context – is important here, as is relying on evidence-informed feminist methodologies. Both are critical animators of our momentum in making a concrete change.”

Next steps for SAWI

Starting in January 2023, through further funding from the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the American University of Beirut and the Telfer School of Management are launching a new phase of the SAWI project. Over the next two years, SAWI will focus on the following areas to continue their work on building inclusive workplaces:

  • Closing the regional data deficit on women’s recruitment, retention, and promotion
  • Strengthening Gender Lens Investing initiatives in the region
  • Developing more crises informed policies for recruitment, retention, and promotion of women
  • Strengthening Equal Opportunities Policies and legislation across the MENA

Mariam Omar, SAWI research associateThis article was written by Mariam Omar. Mariam is a Research Associate at SAWI, Telfer School of Management, and a PhD Candidate (ABD) in Population Health at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Science, University of Ottawa.