A Roadmap For Workplace Inclusion For The MENA Region Now Is The Time To Make A Change!

Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for women at the Olayan. S. Suliman school of Business (OSB) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) is tackling the enormous challenges that women in the MENA face in the workplace. By mobilizing employers, government representatives, and civil society activists across the region, CIBL is starting to help impact the careers of close to 200,000 women employed in the sectors of STEM, Healthcare, Banking, and Finance.

On May 31, 2022, CIBL for Women celebrated the completion of a two-year collaborative project entitled “Support and Accelerate Women’s Inclusion” (SAWI). The SAWI project was completed in partnership with organizations in Algeria (Apotheox Business Services), Bahrain (Warsha Consultancy and Development), Iraq (Women Empowerment Organization-WEO), Jordan (Business and professional Women Amman -BPWA), Lebanon (Lebanese League for Women in Business-LLWB), Morocco (Economia HEM), and Tunisia (Democracy for All), and pioneer employers from the banking, healthcare, higher education, and STEM sectors.

A half-day online event attended by over 500 business leaders, governmental officials, university professors, civil society activists and professionals from around the globe. The event featured speeches by her Excellency the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Ms. Dorothy Shea, President of AUB Dr. Fadlo Khuri, Dean Yusuf Sidani of the Olayan School of Business, Dean Amaney Jamal of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Dean Stephane Brutus of the School of Management at the U Ottawa, VP Fatima Zahra Alami of Université Hassan II Ain Chock de Casablanca Morocco, and CIBL board members launched a “Regional Roadmap for Workplace Inclusion” and a network of trailblazing employers who pledged for an inclusive and sustainable future by developing 112 inclusive human resource policies and practices and mobilizing for women’s dignified participation and representation in the formal economy.

The event featured lively panel discussions with international and regional experts who stressed the role of business schools in accelerating women’s inclusion in the region, how providing women with dignified access to finance can be a tool for advancing more sustainable economic development models, and how inclusive employer policies for women can be a vehicle for advancing regional and global momentum toward the hosted Environmental, Social, and Governance, among other topics. The highlight of the event was the stories shared by country partners and employers who have shared challenges, and success stories.

SAWI was made possible by the funding of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) that has supported the work of the center with numerous generous grants nearing $8 million over the last three years. Prior to SAWI, MEPI also funded the KIP index and Lived experience project which produced the first MENA sector-based measure of women-inclusive policies and practices in local organizations, providing knowledge on the structural gaps of the region and initiating the SAWI project.

‘In a region that has the lowest global rate of women’s participation in business, SAWI project plays such a pivotal role in increasing gender inclusion in the workplace’ – said US Ambassador Dorothy C. Shea. ‘I am proud that the United States has supported SAWI with a $3.5M grant from MEPI. This investment demonstrates our commitment to gender equality & women’s empowerment as a tenet of our foreign policy’ she added.

AUB OSB have been promoting diversity at every stage and shaping business thinking in the MENA region through the SAWI Project.

‘Since its foundation, AUB has been a pioneer of knowledge, activism, and change. AUB has been and will always be an institution committed to working towards providing true & fair opportunities & a chance for meaningful participation’ – said AUB President Fadlo R. Khuri

‘We decided not to wait for change to happen; we decided to be the agents of change.” Dr. Yusuf Sidani…SAWI is not there to advance women who are less qualified or limit the ascension of men who are qualified. This project strives to uncover those obscure policies, unwritten norms, ambiguous standards, and subtle practices that lead to bias, whether explicit or implicit.” Dr. Yusuf Sidani, Dean OSB.

Throughout two years, the SAWI project operated in eight countries and four sectors with 90 employer partnerships to co-create 112 women-inclusive HR policies and strategies. A total of 2449 employers engaged, 195,400 employees were impacted, and 866 regional decision makers received training on inclusive recruitment, retention, and promotion (RRP) and gender-lens investing (GLI) strategies.

“Our work at CIBL is driven by close collaboration with regional partners who share our vision of inclusive workplaces. Working with them has given us more hope than ever before, hope for a region that could be.” Dr. Lama Moussawi, CIBL Director Country partners shared valuable input on the challenges and successes encountered while working on the SAWI project across countries and sectors; they all agreed that the research data provided by CIBL’s KIP index was the main argument that helped them bring employers on board for SAWI; employers were eager to learn more about women’s inclusion data and what organizations are doing to advance their practices.

“With the weak state of knowledge on women’s experiences of formal work & on inclusive HR practices & policies, we were left feeling powerless! Across the region this “data deficit” left us with little power to shape & strategize our pathways forward for dignified work”. ‘Knowledge is Power’ is the spirit that animates all that we do and is manifested in our feminist participatory action research approach,” Dr. Charlotte Karam, Immediate Past Founding Director

A round up from the region

In Bahrain: Sectors like higher education, banking and healthcare adhere to national regulation bodies in Bahrain and are expected to be consistently aligned with the regulator’s requirements -policy wise. Therefore, discussing adding a new policy area, one that is not required by such regulators, was an interesting element that our country partners encountered.

“One of the pleasant surprises was the willingness and interest from employers to have an honest reflection when identify policy areas to work on and interest to align with global examples.” Sabeeka Alshamlan, Warsha Consultancy and Development

In Lebanon: The process of drafting policies and strategies was more challenging with smaller organizations because of the limited resources committed to HR tasks and the limited HR structure found.

“External situation made employers lose focus but being reminded of the importance of drafting inclusive policies helped reshuffle focus+ importance of tracking and implementation policies in combating the tokenism theory and formalities.” Sarah Abi Abdallah, LLWB

In Tunisia: One of the most significant challenges in Tunisia was forming partnerships with the public sector, which was characterized by privacy and complexity, as well as the centralization of administrative decisions and managers’ limited margin of freedom. Another issue was with the banking sector, which has unique internal policies and power distribution structures, making policy adoption more difficult.

“All the challenges we faced reflect the depth of the gender gap and call us to intensify efforts to modify stereotypes.” Amira Marzouk, Democracy for All

In Morocco: bringing employers in to discuss gender inclusion was not a challenge, because Moroccan employers and decision makers are well aware of the importance of investing in a more inclusive workplace, and many are already involved in ESG implementation.

“I am proud to say that based on the SAWI project research we have published two papers, one of them that have received the prize of the best paper in France; I am also proud to announce that we agreed to form a consortium of Moroccan employers committed to women’s inclusion and we are eager to continue working on this.” Manal El Abboube, Economia HEM

In Jordan: it was difficult to bring to the table the concept of inclusive recruitment, retention, and promotion policies. HR systems in general within the Jordanian community was only addressed from the payroll point of views and salaries. Bringing the corporates on board and getting them to understand the value of such activity was challenging.

“My proudest moment is today, when I can say that I am a part of CIBL, that I am on this journey, and that all of the employers are proud to say that we are part of such a community” – Thanaa El Khawasneh, BPWA

In Algeria: employers were unaware of the gender gap and did not grasp the concept properly, and the data showed to them, such as women contributing less than 20% of the economy, was a big chock to them, despite having a corporate culture that valued diversity and involvement in achieving SDGs.

“The multifaceted crisis that we have all been experiencing has had an impact on all countries in terms of financial and social dynamics, which has been reflected at the organizational level. Economic players had to focus on one economic aspect: their own resilience. We had to compete fiercely with the organization’s priorities for resilience and survival while also advancing this critical issue of women’s inclusion,” Amel Belaid, Apotheox Business Services.

What’s next?

Women’s inclusion is a mechanism to advance a regional momentum for the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) agenda. During the event, ESG expert consultant Thomas Jelly highlighted how women’s dignified economic participation can contribute to sustainable and inclusive economic growth worldwide. Working with multi-stakeholder partners in business, academia, government and civil society we collectively engage in fostering most just societies and equitable economies in the region. AUB OSB CIBL invites you to join the pledge and join the growing network of organizations that have committed to support efforts to accelerate women’s inclusion in workplaces across the MENA region.

What has been celebrated is only the beginning of the long-awaited changes that this important work will bring to the MENA region and society. The American University of Beirut, the Olayan S. Suliman School of Business, CIBL for Women, country partners, employers, and stakeholders are all looking forward to the next phase, for the implementation phase.

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