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Flexible work and women's participation in the workforce

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For decades the discussion about flexible work arrangements has been centred around providing incentives and support to women – particularly those with caring responsibilities – to enter into and remain part of the workforce, as researchers and businesspeople alike have stressed the importance of increasing women’s productivity and contribution to the national wealth.

Globally, the gender participation gap has only slightly shrunk over the pre-pandemic years: from 1990 to 2018, when women’s global workforce participation rate was 26.5% below that of men, this gap has narrowed only by 2%, and mostly in the years up to 2009. In the Middle East, the region from where I have been working remotely and flexibly for my UK higher-education institution for more than five years, the gender participation gap for most countries is around 50% according to the International Labour Organization. Things have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2020, the global employment loss for women has been 5% versus 3.9% for men, and women have been more likely than men to become economically inactive (i.e., to drop out of the workforce).

Two elements of the discussion on women and flexible work need now to be prioritised:

  • Calling women to work and to jobs of relevance is not just a GDP-booster solution, as flexibility in the work culture may bring to more than just a reduction in the gender participation gap and an increase in national wealth.
  • A country (region)’s culture, family traditions, gender roles are not the only elements to influence women’s choices on whether or not to work, where and how (when they do have a choice). While an ‘inherited’ culture may shift slowly, the economic forces can accelerate the needed changes and the move towards flexible work.

Regarding the first point, women’s participation to the workforce in jobs that provide them with some real exposure and contribution to the societal needs offers women an identity, a sense of purpose, and also useful financial education and security. As a job is part of the identity of a woman, it must be first and foremost her choice, and so the request to work flexibility. It must be anchored to a guarantee of trust and attachment to the purpose of the job, it should not only come as the rightful request of the working mother/carer.

There is a dual path towards flexible work: one for the businesses to understand and allow it, one for women to take right steps, negotiate it, and earn it too.

Regarding the second point, it has come the time for businesses to understand their fair share of responsibility in determining the conditions of women’s access to the workforce and their chances of remaining in the workforce. In the Middle East (in both the Levantine and Gulf regions), as in many other countries, too often businesses look at flexible work arrangements as an exception to ‘normal’ working patterns. While the pandemic has brought a shift towards normalising it, very often there are no formal HR procedures to request or process it, but rather one-to-one ad-hoc negotiations.

The call for flexible work arrangements, especially for working mothers/carers, needs to be discussed as much as possible now because the pandemic has shown it may be feasible and possible to accommodate such requests. While working women could be major beneficiaries of these policies and procedures, their reliance on flexible work arrangements should not interfere with their identity, their level of representation and access to higher career steps.

Once again, there are two paths to walk.

One path is for businesses to implement the right steps in terms of diversity and inclusion policies, by recognising the importance of women in some key positions (for instance: their different and more empathic approach to collaboration and to managing the workforce, their innate or trained ability to providing rapid solutions to wider arrays of problems) and - in a move towards flexible work arrangements – by learning how to reward effective results over presenteeism and retain commitment and talent in addition to devoted loyalty.

The other path is for working women to learn how not to misuse a flexible work solution (whether that is reduced and compressed working hours or remote work, or hybrid work) to cause them a loss of relevance and representation in a business world where they are already underrepresented. Working women needs to understand when it is important to be ‘there’: that is when their views and actions can stir decisions. Very often it is being part of the decision-making processes that helps women to access solutions/options.

Overcoming the participation-gap problem goes hand in hand with offering ‘more’ options to women on how and where to enter and flourish in the workforce.

Dr Miriam Marra

Associate Professor of Finance

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