Annabel Harper, Executive Leadership Consultant, Author, and Middle Eastern specialist, explores the crucial role of allyship Middle-Eastern men can play in supporting female leaders in the region.
Regions around the globe all have their own cultures and characteristics. Suppose people have not had the opportunity to experience them physically or by personal interactions. In that case, they can form stereotypical opinions, which may be bordering on the truth but can be factually incorrect. Views about the Middle East are no exception.
I have travelled to the region for 20 years and have worked there regularly for more than 10. Yet, I still get asked some strange questions. They include: “Don’t you feel unsafe being there on your own?”; “Don’t you have to be accompanied by a man wherever you go?”; “Don’t you have to walk behind a man, even if you’re with him?” Of course, the answer to these questions is no. I have been shown nothing but courtesy wherever I go, respected and treated as an equal, regardless of my gender.
The Middle Eastern region – gender and culture
The region, formally known as the Middle East and North Africa and commonly known as MENA, comprises no fewer than 19 countries, and each one is different. Generically it is often referred to as the Middle East.
There is no doubt that the region’s culture is complex, and this is where some misconceptions arise. It is important to understand that the unique nature of Arab culture derives from two principal sources. One is the strong influence of the Islamic faith which has been followed since the 6th century.
The other is the importance of family. These two powerful influences have shaped life in the Middle East and run through the Arab DNA. They are interwoven, and together, they have controlled society’s rules and regulations, how family life is run, including the upbringing of children.
In traditional families especially, the expectations of girls and boys growing up are clear. Girls will become the carers and nurturers when they become adults; they will stay in the background and defer to male family members. Historically, they were often seen as fragile and needing to be taken care of. Boys will become the providers in adulthood; they will take charge and be the key decision-makers in the family. The family circle is wide. Children are taught to respect and acknowledge the wisdom of their elders.
Whilst women have certainly gained more independence in the Middle East, there is still a long way to go. Many governments have established education for all, and in some countries, for instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), women outnumber men by a ratio of 2:1 in tertiary education.
Issues with career progression for women
Nevertheless, even if women start their careers at a reasonable level, men rapidly overtake them in career progression, and women’s careers often plateau.
On closer examination, there appear to be several reasons for this, as I found during my research in 2017 and during further research in 2020. As young women strive to move into leadership roles, they often find a bottleneck at the senior level. Many roles are held by men who have been in post for several years. They are often older, which makes it harder for women to challenge, given their upbringing.
I have worked with senior men who find it difficult to accept that women are working and ambitious, especially when they do get promoted and become line managers.
I am accepted as a businesswoman because I am not from the region or part of the culture. Men who hold a more traditional view can feel women should be at home looking after the family. Women are also taught that it is not appropriate to ask for things for themselves, such as promotions or pay rises. Equal pay is not established by law everywhere in the region.
Include men in the conversation
Gender equality will not improve without discussions across all genders. This is not about women being good and men being bad. And it is important to remember that the gender gap is still much too wide across the world, not just in the Middle East. Nothing will change until men are included in the conversation. Women are moving into senior roles, but the majority are still held by men. Senior leaders can drive change by encouraging dialogue across their organisations with both men and women.
Creating mixed working groups to share experiences and perspectives develops understanding. Just as women have grown up with certain expectations, so have men. Raising awareness of unconscious biases, which we all have, can be instrumental in changing attitudes. Senior men can sponsor the career development of individual women. They are best placed to get other male colleagues involved. Social proof of success is a powerful influencer, as is status.
The increasing flood of social media continues to bring knowledge of what is possible for women. Crucially, the under 35’s account for 60% of the population in MENA. Young women, and hopefully young men, will tolerate inequalities in society less and less.
More governments are launching initiatives for women and leadership, for example, in Saudi Arabia. The UAE has been ahead of the curve on this for a long time. Now, more than ever, there are considerable opportunities for women and men to re-design the future of leadership, which is inclusive and collaborative.
Annabel Harper is an Executive Leadership Consultant, Author, and Middle-Eastern specialist.