Dominant commercial focus a challenge to women's careers in Middle East

13 May 2022

How can procurement do more to support women in the profession?

Supply Management spoke with several leaders about the experiences of women in procurement, barriers to career progression and how the profession can do more to support women on the path towards leadership. 

In part two, we consider issues specific to the MENA region, lobbying for change and gathering support, with Ivalua sales director, Sara Omer.


Can you tell me about the challenges women encounter when working in procurement in the Middle East and North Africa? 

There is a challenge in the Middle East region in general where we find there is a lack of infrastructure and organisational support for women in their early career stages. I think in the Middle East, there’s more of a dated mindset coupled with a profit-oriented commercial light around most of the organisational operations. That mindset means for business owners, stakeholders, and group conglomerates, it ultimately comes down to a balance sheet.


This dominant commercial mindset makes it very challenging for women to grow and develop. You would find women growing and developing in more traditional careers such as education, medical research and higher education, for example, as professors. Those types of careers are a bit more sustainable, but in careers such as procurement and supply chain, which are mainly business-oriented, women often face challenges in sustaining and developing into senior roles. 


How common is it for women in MENA to return to work after having children? 

There is a percentage that definitely comes back, but for them the demands in their personal lives can stop them going that extra mile and really fulfil their potential. When women start to have families they require maternity leave, and they need policies and infrastructure at work that supports them when they’re ready to ease back into their roles post-growing their families. 


This is a really big challenge in the Middle East. We have countries that still have maternity leave at durations around 45-60 days. These are very low numbers which are not realistic at all for anybody going through that stage of their life to be able to move back to work and continue. That’s reflected in the very high drop rate – women at early career/mid-career stages drop-off leaving a gap at senior level. 


I've seen that specifically in procurement and supply. When I look at procurement and supply in the Middle East right now, you would find a lot of the senior positions are filled up with women who are expatriates coming from other countries and regions with the seniority and the years that back them. But for those from the region itself, you would find a gap in the numbers of women filling these senior roles and growing through their careers. 


Do you think this makes women less comfortable disclosing information to their employers about pregnancy, or other health issues? 

I think it also depends on the leaders of the organisation – for the leaders of the departments, how close are you with your team and how open is that relationship? Is it a collaborative, supportive relationship? Or is it this autocratic top-down approach? 


From my personal experience when leading teams, we didn't have an issue where team members would hide their life circumstances from us because it was always a type of ‘open door’ conversation and frankness. They were trusting and had the confidence that we are supporting them and have been through circumstances like them. Almost everyone passes through these stages of life development in their career, be it men or women. So, when they come to us with any requirements or requests to accommodate their life changes, we work together to find solutions, back-up plans, shift of work assignments and so on.


I've seen it in many forums among women around my geography who would ask, “I'm pregnant; do you think I should call them now and tell them or not?”, or “I'm interviewing and I may be expecting a child, shall I disclose this or not?”. I see this question around and I understand that in some places it is still a very big challenge, and I believe it boils down to the relationship between the management and the team, which allows everyone to be transparent.


These are mostly systemic issues, so how can we make effective changes? 


Organisations need to develop more policies and practices that can harness and grow these resources because, in the end, women do represent 50% of the population. They are a significant contributor to the workforce, and they do have all the skills, invested extensively in knowledge and education with the right mindset, but need the support. 


At some point, I believe, it cannot just happen at the organisation level. It may need to be more of a social change – more labour laws, more attention to the real challenges, and more of a real understanding of the impact of having women working throughout their careers and giving them the means to continue, grow and retain them. Then allowing them to develop into senior positions and leadership. 


In UAE recently, there have been some changes in the labour laws and employment laws to allow more flexibility around maternity and paternity, and new types of work contracts were introduced such as flex contracts and part-time contracts. That’s one country in the Middle East, for example, but then there are other countries around the region that are still far behind.


It takes significant efforts and a lot to get to where we aspire, and it's a region which is highly driven by the geopolitical situations and circumstances for real social change to happen. It depends on each country to develop their own ways of how they formulate change that makes an impact for professional women development and growth.  


What advice can you give to women in early careers or returning to work? 


Once you get through that difficult curve of growing families, growing from entry to mid-career, and you persevere through, then the doors are open to you. There is a bit of a level where it tests your mettle to some extent. So, if you can try to work out with what you have at hand, and the resources that you have, once you get through that and you get to that mid-career level there will be more open doors and opportunities.


If it’s possible, try to get family support and work into joining networks and women groups or be part of lobby groups and groups that aim to influence governments or policy makers to improve conditions for women in countries like ours. 


There are numerous success stories in the Middle East of women who have grown significantly in their professional careers, and in procurement and supply particularly. There is always a way if there is a will, as the old saying goes, though it is not easy and it is time that these changes are done systematically through policy changes and organisational awareness.

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