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Op-Ed: Is gender discourse changing in the workplace?

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Women empowerment is a current buzzword that needs to be analyzed so we can figure out how it actually translates in the daily lives of women and men. I find it helpful to think of gender issues at three intertwined levels. At the personal level: what does my gender, as a man or woman, mean to me as part of my identity? At an organizational level: how are we as an organization dealing with gender issues? And finally, at a system level (could be on the level of a sector, the society, the world): how are we defining gender roles?

It is important to remember that while our sex is determined biologically, our gender roles are mostly determined socially. This means that we actually construct these roles and reinforce them with practice over time. It also means that socially determined gender roles can change over time.

So if we ask what is the business case or economic benefit of gender diversity in society, I think a few numbers can help. While formal employment figures in Egypt reflect modest participation of women in the formal economy, other statistics and surveys reflect the contribution of women through the informal economy. The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) released data showing that between 15 and 20 percent of households in Egypt are female-led. This means that the main bread winner in these households is a woman. The Ministry of Planning and Economic Development data shows that the value of women’s unpaid work in the care economy in Egypt is equivalent to EGP500 billion annually. Reports of the Women on Boards Observatory, founded by  the AUC School of Business, show that women occupy approximately 10 percent of board seats in Egypt. I believe that these statistics make the question of the business case or economic benefit of gender diversity irrelevant. The question rather becomes, given that women contribute significantly to the economy, how can we better recognize and acknowledge this contribution in order to act fairly?

It may also be helpful to distinguish between the different kinds of biases women can be subjected to. Second generation gender bias is a term often used in gender discourse to refer to the unconscious bias against women. This is the kind of bias that requires emotional intelligence at a personal level to be aware of it and manage its reflection on behavior. It also requires explicit interventions at an organizational level to raise awareness and to identify policies to overcome it.

Role switching is also something that women are subjected to and men are not. If we agree that gender roles are socially determined, then we can understand that there are masculine and feminine traits in each one of us regardless of our biological sex. If masculine traits, such as for example risk-taking, are more rewarded in an organization than feminine traits, like for example empathy; then in order to succeed women will use more of their masculine traits and hide their feminine traits. This adds a psychological and emotional burden on women. In addition, women also carry the major burden of household care, childcare and elderly care. This means that encouraging constructive dialogue to raise awareness of gender roles has implications on men as well, in terms of redefining masculinity to mean partnership and shared responsibility.

Organizations have a large role to play in gender equality. The tone that comes from the top is key. Gender equality has to be reflected at the highest level of the organization in order to be meaningful. The first responsibility of the organization is to ensure the safety of women employees. This can range from securing safe transportation to ensuring a harassment free workplace. Companies have a choice to simply comply with the law, or to go a step further and ‘do no harm’, or to actually go even further and do good, meaning to be pro-active and show initiative in creating a workplace culture that is truly gender-inclusive. This can include explicit action to have more women in decision making positions – such as boards – to act as role models for aspiring women professionals and normalize the presence of women in the C-suite.

Ghada Howaidy

Professor Ghada Howaidy is associate dean for executive education and external relations at the American University in Cairo School of Business & is the founder of the Women on Boards Observatory.

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