The promotion of women in the workplace has been on the international corporate agenda for some time. More recently governments in the GCC are legislating to enhance female participation rates in the workforce and have moved to increase the number of women in senior roles. Both corporate and government measures are gradually changing the workforce dynamic but the immediate issue is whether corporate employers should do and can do more.

More Female Employees

A key governmental aim is to increase the numbers of women in both public and private sector employment. The ILO's 2015 figures calculates female workforce participation in the GCC as being thirty seven percent in Bahrain, twenty six percent in Oman, fifty three percent in Qatar and forty seven percent in Kuwait. The World Bank's 2014 figures calculate female workforce participation in the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be forty seven and twenty percent, respectively.

In an effort to encourage women working, GCC Governments have legislated to provide for various family friendly leave entitlements as follows:

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In the UAE the Gender Balance Council was formed on the 9 August 2016 under the direction of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women's Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, to review and revise the existing maternity leave provisions in the UAE Labour Law in order to support the role of women in the workplace. Timelines for reviewing and implementing any changes have not yet been set; however, the Council is striving to bridge the gender gap, enhance the gender balance in decision making positions and place the UAE in the top 25 countries on the international gender equality index by the year 2021. Within the public sector the government has also legislated to provide for three months of paid maternity leave and an additional break of two hours following the employees return to work to provide for breastfeeding.

In KSA, the Ministry of Labour has held workshops in all major urban centres to inform women of their entitlements and the labour provisions relating to women's employment in the Kingdom (given the requirements for segregation), including within factories, retail, leisure parks and offices (see here for further information).

Company Policies

Against this legislative backdrop many employers in the GCC enhance family friendly entitlements. Clyde and Co's 2016 workplace study found that in the UAE, 36% of employers surveyed had 31 to 49% of their staff made up of women, and 71% of employers surveyed offered compassionate leave (41% offered flexible compassionate leave), with 47% also offering paternity leave. Surprisingly, 79% of respondents stated that their companies offered maternity leave in line with applicable law and not enhanced leave.

In KSA, the percentage of female staff was unsurprisingly much lower with 13% stating that they employed no female employees and 50% recording between 1-10% as women. 75% of respondents stated that they didn't permit female employees to work remotely notwithstanding the Ministry of Labour promoting remote working for Saudi female employees and the HRDF running various programmes to enable remote working.

A key with regard to corporate policies is to obtain management buy in to providing enhanced employee benefits. Whilst it can sometimes be difficult to establish a direct correlation between enhanced benefits and employee retention, retaining women during the middle years of their careers when typically employees start families but also go through important periods of developing skills and experience can only ensure a pipeline of female talent for development and later promotion. Historically, the region may have suffered from a reluctance to invest in developing employees as staff attrition has in the past been high due with a significant part of the workforce being composed of a transitory expatriate segment. However, UAE in particular has now developed into a significant regional hub and many employers have seen employees base themselves long term in the region. The development of a significant local national workforce has also been a recent development and can only grow with the increased focus on workforce nationalisation in the private sector. All these developments make it a growing imperative not only to consider ways in which to retain female employees in the business but also to support both male and female employees in achieving a work life balance.

Part-time and Flexible Working

In the UAE, 30% of employers surveyed in the Clyde and Co study offered temporary or part time working and 36% offered off site and home working. In the CIPD's Workforce Insights November 2016 report: A Middle East Perspective 27% of corporate respondents stated that they have increased flexible working practices within the region over the past twelve months. The most commonly offered arrangements were flexitime (the ability to choose start and finish time within core hours), mobile working (e.g. using a laptop from another location), flexi place (option to work from home some days a week) and part time working. The impact of technology will likely enhance these forms of atypical working and again, could create opportunities for retaining female employees (and employees more generally) as the Millennial generation has different expectations and seeks to determine when and how they work. The CIPD study also found that certain industries are more likely to offer flexible working, such as education, IT/technology, telecoms, business consultancy, HR/law/social services, advertising, marketing and PR.

The barriers from a management perspective in implementing flexible working are potentially corporate culture and a lack of management buy in. The need to put in face time and build up trust between employees and the management team can inhibit the operation of flexible working. From an employee management perspective, such arrangements can only really work if the employee is set concrete deadlines in terms of work delivery, rather than being measured in terms of how much time is spent in the office and whether he does a nine to five working day. The process for applying for and securing agreement to flexible working also needs to be documented and streamlined, with clear allocation of responsibility to HR, managers and the employee.

Senior Management and Board representation

Perhaps a greater challenge than increasing the number of women working or retaining women in a business is ensuring that career development and promotion through internal ranks. Clyde and Co's 2016 workplace study found that 52% of respondents in the UAE put their female senior management at between 1-10%, with 12% reporting it as zero. In KSA, the rates were 37% reporting no senior female managers and 63% recording 1-10%.

Within the GCC, the UAE is looked to as a role model in this field given Sheikh Mohammed's robust support of women working and the Dubai Government's recent promotion of this issue. Ministerial Resolution 225 of 2015 amending 518 of 2009 on Government Rules and Corporate Discipline obliges Dubai government owned entities to have at least one female director or provide an explanation as to why no female nominee was provided. These companies are also obliged to put in place a policy regarding the nomination of female employees and encouragement of female board representation with the policy being provided to the Securities and Commodities Authority.

Deloitte and the 30% Clubs' report 'View from the top: what business executives really think about women leaders in the GCC' which interviewed a number of C suite leaders, found that progress varied across industries and sectors with the public sector being ahead of the private sector. Barriers and bias do exit but quotas continue to be controversial and despite there being a unanimous acknowledgment that women leaders have a positive impact on boards is not seen as a priority for businesses at the current time.