What women want at work in Qatar: conclusions from W4Women Doha

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Photos by Bilal Khalifeh of Silatech.

May was a busy month at Wamda; we powered through 4 Mix N' Mentor events in one month, in Bahrain, Doha, Amman, and Riyadh.

Wamda for Women joined in three of those cities, bringing women together for straightforward discussions about the challenges that women face, in the workplace and as business owners.

In Doha, in partnership with Silatech and Roudha Center, we held a lively two-hour event focused on issues unique to the Qatari ecosystem.

Qatar not only has prominent female leaders, such as Sheikha Moza, Sheikha Hanadi, and Sheikha bint Yusuf al Jufairi, but it also has a higher percentage of women in the formal workforce (40.6%, according to the ILO) than the regional average (25%, one of the lowest worldwide). Qatar’s gender employment gap is also lower than most Arab countries, according to a recent World Bank study.

Yet one of the major themes of our discussion is that, following both the conclusions that Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, comes to in her book Lean In, and the conversation that Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, kicked off with her famous article Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, inequalities can be subtle.

When women negotiate hard for salaries, we are found unattractive, according to a 2012 Harvard study.

We also tend to conservatively choose jobs that we already possess the skills for, Sandberg points out. However, a McKinsey study found that men are more often promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on accomplishments, so perhaps some of our tactics are reinforced by the status quo.

Myths and images in the Arab World

Gender disparities are particularly stark in the Arab world. Women control 22% of the region’s wealth, yet the gender employment gap has doubled in 25 years.

However, as economies shift and education improves, more and more women will be joining the workforce in the next few decades. Of the 200 million more jobs that the region needs by 2050 simply to maintain current employment rates, 75% of those jobs will be for women, the World Bank estimates.

And the realities are that women are well positioned to lead as entrepreneurs and in the workforce in the Arab world. 

Gaps aren't always what they seem; while only 25% of women are present in the formal workforce, the informal sector may account for up to 50% of women’s employment. If the actual percentage of women in the workplace is closer to 50% (twice 25%), that’s near the global average.

And as we mentioned in our summary of the W4Women Roundtables in Cairo, female university graduates also outnumber male graduates in 11 out of 18 countries.

While some may think that female entrepreneurs in the Arab world are focused on running small catering or handicraft businesses, the realities are that 30% of businesses run by women in the region are large scale and over 80% plan to expand.

And 83% of female entrepreneurs work over 40 hours a week (in our W4Women roundtables, most entrepreneurs said they work more than that).

Roundtable discussions

With the goal of forming an accurate image of what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace in Qatar, we had three breakout roundtable discussions: about stereotypes and role models, work/life balance, and finding funding and negotiating salaries.

We asked women to choose their favorite topic before starting the discussions. And in Doha, we found that our answers were somewhat polarized. Here's a look at our conclusions:

Finance and negotation

This table was mostly full of expatriate women, from families originally from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, the U.K., and Bahrain. The major issues they faced included:

  • Sponsorship laws are unfair. A central issue that came up for all women on the table was the expectation in Qatar that if a woman was married, she was expected to legally operate under her husband’s sponsorship, which meant that both local and international companies in Qatar could deny her equal pay as well as benefits like tuition support. 
     
  • Negotiation is difficult. Even single women were expected to be provided for by their families; any negotiations for salaries were dismissed, as womens’ income was seen as pocket money; somehow its relation to other sources of income forms an argument for not giving expatriate women their due. “You’re simply not taken seriously or as an equal,” several women said.
     
  • Resistance is discouraged. Many women noted that if they tried to stand up for themselves, they were discouraged, or termed a moody woman. This were hardly exclusive to local Qatari companies; however, the culture extended through multinationals. 
     
  • A lack of familial support. Of the entrepreneurs on the table, a few had started a business in order to break out of the typical workplace model, and have control over their time, creativity, and salary. At least two women noted that their husbands were not support of their businesses, but one had proved her business to her husband, and he had eventually come around.

Work/life balance

This topic, on the other hand, gathered several local Qatari women. Sponsorship may not be an issue for them, but balance certainly was. These women noted that: 

  • Having flexibility at work was a major challenge. Half cited this as an issue and the majority said they wanted more opportunities for part-time work. 
     
  • Workplaces in Qatar generally don’t support children. Although, women said, public sector employers were more sensitive to work/life balance. 
     
  • Social obligations are a challenge. Some women had husbands who were supportive of their work; others didn’t. All said that social obligations in general made it difficult to balance work or running a business with home life.
     
  • Financial independence is essential. Regardless of one's familial wealth, women need their own salaries, the table agreed.

Role models and stereotypes

Finally, this table mostly focused leadership features, and touched briefly upon stereotypes. Women said that a good leader should be:

  • inspiring
  • unbiased
  • focused on meritocracy
  • taking ownership of their own mistakes
  • encouraging of creativity
  • challenging.

While the discussion didn’t delve into specifics on stereotypes, a few issues came up:

  • 100% of the women on the table said they felt subject to negative stereotypes in the workplace, which were perpetuated by men as well as women.
     
  • 85% felt they were fighting to prove themselves
     
  • Yet 71% felt empowered in the workplace.

Solutions

The solutions that women called for overall included policy changes, cultural transformation, and specific improvements in the their options at work. These included:

  1. A network where women can connect with each other, especially in male-dominated fields, to offer support to each others’ businesses and generally help out by volunteering their time pro-bono (we’re trying to build this community on our W4Women FacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn channels). 
     
  2. More opportunities for part-time work, especially systems where two women can share a full-time job, in order to improve work/life balance.
     
  3. Educating men, beginning with educating their children, about the right of women to work, was also a resolution on many fronts.
     
  4. Changing the legal system so that interviewers cannot ask about marriage would help those hoping to negotiate for equal pay or equal rights, many said; of course, altering the sponsorship law so that women who have independent sponsorship don’t have to be forced to work via their husband’s sponsorship, would also lessen inequality. 
     
  5. Finally, women called for solidarity in standing up for themselves, being authentic, making solid choices, and looking to each other as leaders.

We’ll be continuing with summaries of our W4Women roundtables in Amman and Riyadh this week; stay tuned and sign up to our Facebook GroupGoogle+ community, and LinkedIn group to learn more.

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