Women must mentor one another to help achieve gender equality in the workforce and ensure that there is an inclusive future, speakers at the inaugural Women Leaders Summit in Dubai concluded Thursday, as the two-day conference wound down.
The two-day event staged by Verve Management focused on elevating women in the workplace, bringing together female leaders to share their stories, struggles and journeys to success in order to enlighten and inspire the next generation.
Mentorship is the most important way forward, something that can solve many problems women face in considering careers or within the workforce, The Media Line President Felice Friedson, who chaired the conference, said in her keynote speech.
She spoke of two circles: the mentor to mentee circle and the mentor-to-mentor circle, with the latter being equally as important as the former. Role models are essential, she said.
This message was echoed by Melda Akin, CEO of the Dubai-based D14.AI information services company, who stressed the significance of mentorship in ensuring that there is a holistic look at the technology sector in order to overcome the barriers women face.
With more efforts on gender inclusivity being made globally as well as in the MENA region, some panelists said that they expect more women to be part of the technology conversation.
The numbers of women in technology are not high enough, Akin said during the panel titled “What’s next for women in technology.”
“We are going to see more” women in technology, Akin said. “As a company, we look for character, reliability and passion because the rest could be learned. There will be more and more females” within the field,” she told the audience.
Friedson, meanwhile, highlighted the massive gap in gender parity that exists in the region.
“The World Economic Forum puts it into perspective,” she said. “According to WEF, it would take the women of the Middle East and North Africa 115 years to reach gender parity.”
Friedson said that education from an early age is fundamental to eradicating the lack of gender equality in the workforce.
“The answers are narrowing: it’s education, education and education. It’s critical to start at a young age – college is too late. Gender equality, opportunities for women should start when women are young,” Friedson said.
“We have to build ourselves beyond our comfort zones,” she added, explaining that governments must also understand what is happening on the ground.
“Some governments have enacted parity laws such as the UAE, which requires the presence of at least one woman on every company’s board of directors. Women are opting out, the trend is working from home, an idea which preceded the COVID pandemic but which has been strengthened in its aftermath,” Friedson said.
Friedson also stressed the need to educate the male population that women in the workforce should not be feared but welcomed. “There are men who hold women back, fearing their success. The narrative needs to change,” she said.
She suggested that men and women visit each other’s workplace to encourage a better understanding of one another’s professions.
Friedson gave the example of her colleague, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, a Druze journalist who was given the honor of becoming Israel’s first Arabic-speaking television anchor for state broadcasts in Hebrew.
“While some questioned whether it was an appropriate position for a woman, Gadeer spoke of a call of congratulations she received from one of the most important leaders of her community – of course, a male,” Friedson said.
In her speech, Noha Hefny, the founder and CEO of People of Impact, a consulting, innovation and collaboration platform advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, said that workplaces need an inclusive culture that can limit inequalities through access to technology and skills.
“Women are still underrepresented in leadership,” she said, adding that “in the private sector alone, women represent [just] 31 percent in leadership globally.”
“We need to focus on equity to achieve equality,” she told the audience, adding that “women supporting women equals economic empowerment.”
Friedson also identified the issue of women actually leaving the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa.
Although a 2021 UNICEF report found that “women are becoming more involved in civil society as a successful vehicle of change, the reality is the trend is going the other way,” she said.
“As recently as 2020, a UN report stated that the percentage of women in the MENA workforce is declining,” she said. Furthermore, Friedson added, “only 18% of managerial positions are held by women.”
Almas Jiwani, president emeritus of UN Women National Committee Canada, told the conference that women can be the answer only if the conditions are there to enable women to fulfill that role.
On a global scale, she said, progress has taken place by seeing more women in leadership and the gender gap shrinking in some companies. But, she added, “the needle has not moved far enough.”
“We still have to make the case for having equity to resources,” she said.
Maryam Habil, Vice President for Media Intelligence and Innovation at the UAE’s Mubadala Investment Company, said that the workplace doesn’t always encourage women to be transparent or to take responsibility for their decisions.
“We have to teach women at a young age in the work field that you have to be accountable,” said Habil.
Nonetheless, women are focusing on sectors that are challenging the collective and focusing on the future, according to Katie Wachsberger, co-founder and COO of DANA Global, an Abu Dhabi-based investment platform that supports women-led startups in desert tech.
Speaking at the panel discussion titled “Women startup; tackling founder challenges,” Wachsberger said that these sectors require patience and willingness.
“Women are more willing to go through the longer process. … We have encountered a lot of resilience,” she said.
Anuscha Iqbal, co-founder and CEO of ZipPay company Spotii, made a similar argument.
“We had to pull our way up most of our lives and that builds in us the ability to have that drive by being empathetic,” she said.
According to Iqbal, the broader fintech space does not have a dominant female presence, suggesting that perhaps people within the sector were not comfortable with dealing with women.
But, Friedson maintained in her keynote speech, “I stand by my opening statement: men respect women who come prepared.”
She laid down a challenge for women to press on with hard work of generations past, building on their achievements to elevate others.
“Our grandmothers paved the way, our mothers began the journey and it’s our duty to carry the torch in their honor and their memory,” she said.
“The challenge of creating economic parity between the sexes remains formidable even though an objective reading of related statistics would indicate the opposite. Ladies: we have all of the prerequisites. On paper, men have nothing greater than we have,” she asserted.
The story is written by Omnia Al Desoukie and reprinted with permission from The Media Line