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How Employers in the Middle East can narrow one of the largest Gender Gaps in the world

By Lea Farhat and Orla Quinn | April 11, 2023

A focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a business necessity for sustainable talent, wellbeing, meeting ESG commitments and better business outcomes. It can be a competitive differentiator.
Inclusion-and-Diversity|Ukupne nagrade |Compensation Strategy & Design

A focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a business necessity for sustainable talent, wellbeing, meeting ESG commitments and better business outcomes. DEI matters to talent and their experience, consumers, stakeholders, investors and communities. It can be a competitive differentiator.

There are many topics and themes that involve DEI. Government initiatives are addressing Gender Equality globally and organizations are recognising their own responsibility to act accordingly.

MENA remains one of the regions with the largest gender gap

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the progress of the global gender gap. It has now been pushed by a generation from 100 years to 132 years, according to the World Economic Forum 2022 Global Gender Gap report. With the current relative pace, closing the gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is now at 114 years.

This is a huge step back, as research shows that women in the region are significantly more educated than male counterparts and perform better at school. Additionally, women are still compelled to leave the job market to raise their children because of the lack of support from society. This is also evident in the workplace when employers fail to provide sufficient family-friendly benefits, career progression and equal pay for women.

This research is driving regional governments to act now to accelerate the closing of the gender gap. The 2022 Global Gender Gap report also says that the UAE was one of the region’s best-performing countries, having closed 71.6% of their overall gender gap. Saudi Arabia also emerged as one of the best-performing countries, closing their gap by 3.3% in one year alone from 2021 to 2022. The UAE also saw a reduction of the gap regarding legislators, senior officials and managers, and healthy life expectancy, but is it enough?

Although government reforms are making progress, employer actions will be meaningful to further reduce the gender gap.

WTW research

The WTW 2022 Global Priorities for Employee Benefits survey reveals that multinationals are increasing their attention on “achieving inclusive benefits to support diversity and address equity”, with 8% more organizations identifying this as their focus area compared to the previous year.

Despite various laudable government initiatives across the region, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, these initiatives are new, and their impact has yet to be felt on a large scale. Multinational employers cannot rely on government initiatives to reduce the gap and must take steps to deliver on their DEI beliefs and commitments. For example, since 2020 the UAE Labor Law has stated that female employees should receive wages equal to that of their male counterparts, but the law does not yet require organizations to report any such metrics for the time being. Furthermore, basic parent-friendly benefits in the region are still behind global best practices. The UAE Labor Law recently enhanced maternity leave to cover 45 calendar days at full pay and a further 15 days at half pay, yet this still isn’t up to the standard that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended, which is 16 weeks. Many multinationals still follow the basic mandated benefit by law when designing their benefit programs locally, including in the UAE, and do not align with the WHO either, resulting in unequal Employee Value Proposition for their female talent around the world.

Spotlight - Saudi Arabia women participation

Women constitute 52% of university students but only 33% of the workforce; and only 20% of seats at the parliament are held by women. Vision2030 forms part of the Saudi Government’s initiative to help diversify the Saudi economy, and particularly draw from the skills and expertise from its long-underrepresented women. An incredible reform spanned over 13 years, many of the key agenda for Vision2030 address the Government’s drive to Saudize its workforce and empower women. With Saudi emerging as the third best-performing country in closing their gender gap in 2022, its clear that significant progress is being made.

As the UAE and Saudi governments make open commitments to tackle gender equality throughout their country, local and regional organizations also recognise the need to address the inequalities. Organizations are learning and understanding the role that employee benefits can play in addressing some of the challenges that their employees face. However, more than relying on traditional benchmarking data alone might be required as this tends to reflect historical norms and can fail to capture the success of those committing and making progress on their DEI values and goals.

This stresses the importance for organizations to act now, especially when the starting point in the Middle East is lower than many other places around the globe.

Moving forward towards organizations’ DEI goals can be tricky, especially in a region ranking low on the Gender Gap index. Employers need to review the competitiveness of benefits through the DEI lens to assure they remain desirable. Whilst there are challenges in the form of cultural barriers, beliefs and costs, the commitment to offer attractive benefits that are inclusive for all, is a journey —and one that can be embarked on with caution and excitement. The end goal is not to offer a tick-box Total Rewards package with a DEI gloss but to instil a culture of inclusion and belonging, offering an environment where employees can see the space and potential for them to grow and accelerate their careers.


The DEI lens shouldn’t just be about MNCs complying and providing templated Total Rewards packages, nor is it a trend only relevant in the U.S. and Europe. It is a holistic approach to ensure dignity and parity and recognises employees’ uniqueness. It encompasses many themes and priorities depending on the country, culture, and company.

Critical examples of where to start can range from simple employee listening exercises and tools, a review of family-friendly benefits and leave policies, to broader scales such as leadership sessions or gathering DEI-specific analytics.

As the saying goes, “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.” Here is the call to hold yourself accountable. Contact WTW as your first step and let your organization’s journey towards a more equitable and inclusive workplace begin.


Director, Integrated & Global Solutions
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Integrated & Global Solutions
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