The role of startups in advancing gender-inclusive workplaces

Dr. Charlotte Karam is an Associate Professor at the Olayan School of Business, and the Founding Director of CIBL for Women. She served as the Associate Dean of Programs and Chair of the Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship Track. In her role as Founding Director, Dr. Karam oversees all programs at CIBL for Women and has managed to secure $8 million in research funding from various sources.

Ceem Haidar is the Founder of -ment, a strategic communication consultancy, which is specialized in four main areas: communication, content, design and development. She works as the Communication Consultant at CIBL for Women at the Olayan School of Business, American University of Beirut.

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The business world has transformed rapidly over the past year, with remote work becoming the norm. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many challenges that business leaders were forced to address in record time. The perceived winners are startups and scaleups, which have proven to be more agile and more innovative, when compared to larger organizations. However, one core issue which businesses operating in the Arab MENA region have not managed to properly address to date, is inclusive workplace strategies.

Women in the region continue to suffer these consequences and have dropped out of the formal economy in record numbers, with dangerous gendered patterns of discrimination emerging. Millions of women across the region have been put in a position to decide between maintaining a career and becoming the primary caregiver at home. This shift has impacted their financial independence, vulnerability to gender-based violence and created an even bigger divide in the workplace.

What can startups and scaleups do to become more inclusive?

Entrepreneurs are mainly focused on product or service innovation and gaining traction. However, a long-term vision, specifically when it comes to recruiting, retaining and promoting women, should be on leaders’ agendas from the beginning. Not having women on the team may dampen growth prospects and negatively impact the business and bottom line.

Gender diversity and inclusion should be on the top of every corporate agenda. From the get-go, having more inclusive workplace strategies, providing solid career trajectories, as well as having women represented in leadership positions will lead to attracting top talent, regardless of their gender. Diverse work environments will result in a richer pool of ideas, more innovation and stronger business acumen.

For example, the tech and STEM sectors that have long been homogenous and predominantly male. However, across the Arab MENA region, according to the KIP Index and Lived Experience Index by the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women, women are eager to work, especially in their field of expertise. More women are graduating from universities but they are not finding jobs in their fields.


So how can startups and scaleups become more inclusive?

To bring about systemic change to regional workplaces, actions need to be taken starting today. Here are recommendations for startups and scaleups, to become more inclusive:

• Include the company’s internal commitment to diversity as part of the mission

Diversity and inclusion in startups and scaleups should be part of the company’s mission, which can be translated into tangible policies to avoid biases and discrimination in recruitment, retention, and promotion policies. Performance evaluation is often rigged in the favor of men, but startups can set an example by adopting more gender-inclusive working packages and evaluation schemes.

• Reporting should come from within

Startups report back to investors on all types of figures and numbers. However, internal reporting mechanisms that recognize bias, discrimination and workplace violence are relatively absent in the entrepreneurial world. Startups are advised to build internal reporting mechanisms that include structures to report discrimination and revise all corporate literature to remove gender-bias terminology.

• Mentorship for all, especially women from different background

Networking is a main focus area of startups and scaleups, the same goes for mentoring opportunities –typically reserved for the leadership team. However, mentoring programs and networking opportunities should be more comprehensive and developed as part of corporate strategies. Women also benefit from female role models in the industry, so startups can invite trailblazers to speak to women and recruit young female talent from universities across the region.

• Collaborate with peers and experts

The startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem across the Arab MENA region is thriving. Yet, women in the workplace are not. Create a network of startups and entrepreneurs (either based on geographic location or sector) where transparent discussions can potentially lead to campaigns to promote gender-inclusive workplaces.

The sooner startups and the entrepreneurs that manage them bring the topic of gender diversity and inclusion in the workplace to the table, the sooner systemic change will be seen across the region. After all, startups are seen as innovators, and can influence larger organizations with their practices and policies. This regional movement can create a ripple effect, benefiting all sectors and stakeholders, to build more inclusive and balanced workplaces. Greater inclusion is associated with growth (if that’s what drives you), with sustainable development goals (if that’s what you care for), and with improving the wellbeing of women (if that’s what you want) – we hope you will want to achieve all three, and we know that you can.

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