With the ever accelerating pace of change combined with the need for sustainability, gender diversity and the women in leadership agenda is increasingly taking centre stage for global HR, particularly in many organisations in the Middle East and Africa.

Yet in one of our recent HR network think tanks with some of the key global and local organisations in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey region (MENAT) we found there are still barriers in place for females at higher levels. Discussions at the event indicated that the majority of organisations have a real lack of women in leadership roles and are finding it difficult to make this shift. There are a number of external and internal barriers that have been identified which prevent women from reaching top roles. However, with current cultural and socio economic shifts, many organisations in the MENAT region feel there is now a real opportunity to make a difference.

According to research carried out in the lead up to the think tank, there are a number of both internal and external factors that are currently impacting progression. When we look at the external factors there are two key areas which are barriers to change; government practice and policy, and family and societal culture. This comes as no surprise as both of these have long been recognised as inhibitors to the progression of women into leadership roles.

Alongside these external issues, there are several internal factors which we’ve identified including:

  • Business culture, practices and policies
  • Double burden syndrome – “women balancing work and family responsibilities”
  • Absence of role models
  • Lack of opportunities for women
  • Working practices that require geographical mobility and constant availability
  • Traditional male oriented social norms
  • Base level country policy, practices and infrastructure

Clearly women in the region face a huge struggle to overcome these barriers. Encouragingly though it was clear from the research that senior managers recognise the importance for organisations in MENAT to collectively collaborate and explore how to remove some of the internal and external barriers to women’s progress to the top roles. Every single interviewee we spoke to said they believed that woman in leadership is an important issue to tackle for at least one of the following reasons:

  • Organisational success is increasingly being linked to a diverse leadership group
  • Some leadership behaviours more often applied by women than men have proven to enhance company performance and will be key to meet tomorrow’s business challenges
  • Around half the population is female – with increasing skills gaps in the MENAT region organisations cannot afford to ignore the female talent pool
  • Organisations want the best possible talent at the top and by excluding female talent pools they will not achieve this
  • Women often perform better – many organisations had proof that women were outperforming some of their male colleagues, a trait attributed to their motivation to prove themselves.

The desire to tackle this issue is there, but how this is done is really the key question. The majority of delegates involved in the event maintained that they were committed to instituting some form of change in the next 12 months, and we’ll be working with them to develop a working group to share best practice and innovation.

Check back next month to find out how to build the business case for women in leadership.