Working Mothers and the Gulf – Will efforts to promote flexible working and gender diversity be a game changer for the region’s women and economy?

Will the region's businesses embrace mom-friendly policies?

Will the region’s businesses embrace mom-friendly policies?

It’s no secret to those of us whom know the Gulf; this region has lagged behind when it comes to women in the workplace, particularly mothers. A number of new organizations are looking to change this, either through working to push for the return of working mothers to the workforce or by calling for more female participation in the board room.

Co-founded by two of the most experienced recruiters in their respective fields in the United Arab Emirates, Hopscotch and Mums@Work are working to transform perceptions about working mothers and promote a change in working practices, such as the introduction of flexible hours and remote working.

Hopscotch's Helen McGuire's own experiences as a career professional who took time out have inspired her to help other women in the Gulf

Hopscotch’s Helen McGuire’s own experiences as a career professional who took time out have inspired her to help other women in the Gulf

“Hopscotch was set up to be much more than a recruitment firm. We’re a support platform to support women and get them back into the workplace. Part time work is doable, but it’s not how it is perceived,” explains Helen McGuire, co-founder and managing director of Hopscotch, which was set up by her and her husband Justin McGuire who himself founded the recruitment agency MCG Associates. “A lot of full time roles are full time simply because that is the standard, that’s the norm. We’re opening up a new talent pool that hasn’t existed before and that means potentially a new way of working for everyone in the region.”

For Louise Karim, the managing director of Mums@Work, her goal is two-fold, namely to promote flexible and part-time working as an option to women who have taken a break from their career for family reasons and to support both these women get back into work as well as corporations who are looking to hire working mothers but don’t know where to start.

“We’ve done our research here and we did a survey [through our parent company Mackenzie Jones] to ask our clients about mums in the workplace. We got an outstanding positive response when we asked if they’d hire mothers,” says Karim. “We also undertook a You Gov Survey which indicated 77% of mothers in the UAE would return to work if flexible options were available.”

Both organizations are looking to tap into what they believe is a significant pool of professionals, many of whom were senior-level executives, who are based in the region but whom don’t feel ready to commit to full time work but would work flexi-hours or remotely if the option was available. As Karim explains, the response has been remarkable.

Mums@Work's Louise Karim (pictured on the right) aims to create a community that will help get moms back into the workplace

Mums@Work’s Louise Karim (pictured on the right) aims to create a community that will help get moms back into the workplace

“Since our launch over a month ago we have had 3,000 CVs, a good percentage of which are very strong candidates, women who were in management and executive positions,” says Karim. “With clients we have had a strong response and our roles range from regional project manager for a multinational retailer, to legal, finance, marketing support. These include full-time flexible work to one or two days a week.”

The reaction to Hopscotch, which was also launched this year, has similarly exceeded expectations states McGuire. The organization, which McGuire describes as being unique in terms of its commitment to training, skills and support through ongoing Workshop series and online resources, has been overwhelmed by a positive response from both corporates and moms who want to get back into work.

“We have been astounded by the response, not just from women, but also from businesses and the media. We imagined some companies would take a little persuasion, but so far the response to bringing a new product to this market which we have done has been really positive.”

As part of their engagement with mothers who have been out of the workforce for some time, both Hopscotch and Mums@Work are going beyond the typical recruitment service and providing additional support to get them ready to re-enter the workforce. Hopscotch is currently running a series of workshops in association with HSBC. In addition to workshops and mentoring, Mums@Work is developing a portal which Karim hopes will turn into a support network for sharing advice, providing guidance and support.

A different approach is being taken by the 30% Club, a movement which was conceived of in the United Kingdom back in 2010 and which found its way to the Gulf last year. The idea is simple – get more women on company boards and they’ll push for a change from within. The 30% Club, which advocates for a minimum of 30% female representation at board level, has spread rapidly around the globe, including in the Gulf where it is being supported by a host of organizations.

Felice Hurst, a board member of the 30% Club in the Gulf, wants to see more female executives sitting on the boards of the region's businesses

Felice Hurst, a board member of the 30% Club in the Gulf, wants to see more female executives sitting on the boards of the region’s businesses

Gender balance on boards not only encourages better leadership and governance, but diversity further contributes to better all-round board performance, and ultimately increased corporate performance for both companies and their shareholders,” explains Felice Hurst, Gulf chapter board volunteer and MENA managing director for Hanson Search. “Women play a very powerful role in the Middle East when it comes to business, and we are witnessing an increased number of women in government, running private businesses, and driving the economy forward in countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi.”

For Hurst, herself a working mother, the issue of getting mothers back into jobs is part of the wider debate about female representation in management. “As an executive recruitment professional, the topic of enhancing the female talent and enabling them to perform well both as Mothers and businesswomen is at the top of the priority list. Women bring in a “new” and often wider perspective to management problem solving, and expanding the female participation in the workforce will expand the pool of talent that the GCC organizations can tap into.”

The argument is also economic, explains Hurst. More female participation will only be better for the local, regional and global economy. “McKinsey recently produced a report “Women Matter” highlighting that companies greatly benefit from gender diversity in leadership positions, with more diversity going hand in hand with higher organizational effectiveness. The report argued that there is an economic case for gender parity, and that advancing equality could add US$12 trillion annually to global GDP by 2025. This is a pressing global issue with huge ramifications not just for the lives and livelihoods of girls and women but, more generally for human development, productivity and GDP growth.”

While it’s too early to tell what impact these organizations and initiatives have made on perceptions and hiring, the fact that we’re seeing a groundswell of support for changing attitudes and policies towards working mothers should be applauded. I for one will be doing what I can to cheer on the 30% Club, Hopscotch and Mums@Work.

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