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RIYADH: Women rejoining the workforce after a career gap could contribute $385 billion to the economies of nine Middle East and North Africa countries, a survey showed. 

According to a study conducted by PwC Middle East, this opportunity to increase the gross domestic product highlights significant employment potential in the region. This will prompt companies to adopt supportive measures facilitating a smooth transition for women reentering the workforce. 

The survey indicates that nearly 50 percent of working women in the MENA region have taken career breaks, often influenced by family and caregiving responsibilities, with over 68 percent at experienced levels and above. 

The findings are derived from insights gathered from over 1,200 women in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, as well as from Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan, with respondents also from Kuwait, Lebanon, and Oman.  

While 82 percent of women returning to work believe they can climb to the top levels, 49 percent acknowledge rejected applications due to resume gaps.  

The report, which integrated crucial perspectives from CEOs in the region, suggests that implementing flexible working models for women could generate approximately $4.3 billion in GDP gains across the nine surveyed countries. 

It emphasizes the need for employers to take action, particularly through returnship programs, which 83 percent of women view as crucial in influencing their decision to rejoin the workforce. 

The professional services firm revealed that implementing equitable parental leave policies, along with well-designed returnship programs, can encourage more women to return to employment. 

Norma Taki, Middle East inclusion and diversity leader, transaction services partner and consumer markets leader at PwC, said: “Women returning to work face obstacles to career advancement as employers do not view career breaks favorably, which results in a negative impact on earnings and career progression.”  

However, she said career breaks can offer profound personal growth opportunities.  

The study underscored the importance of providing flexible or remote working models for women, enabling them to balance their work and home responsibilities. 

“Our experiences have shown us a clear link between the well-being of a community and the participation of women in the workforce. That is why we believe that every voice needs to be valued and every individual must be empowered to channel their talent for the greater good,” said Taki.  

She warned that failure to bring back women to the workforce would be a significant loss of talent for organizations. “By facilitating the return of women to the workplace after a career break, organizations can improve their human capital, contributing to the region’s future success.”  

The report further pointed out that rapid economic and social transformation in the region, where national development strategies and policies have played a crucial role in bridging the gender gap in the labor market, is elevating the number of women in the workforce. 

At the same time, businesses must address the risk of unconscious bias by implementing inclusive workplace policies and providing training for teams, leaders, and talent acquisition, as emphasized by the PwC study. 

However, some employers assume that returning women lack experience or have diminished skills, resulting in the rejection of their job applications. 

The research document highlights that women rejoining the workforce face several challenges, including employer stigma and the risk of experiencing slower career advancement or reduced earnings compared to their peers due to being “mommy tracked.” 

The term is used to describe a life path for women that prioritizes motherhood, often resulting in delayed career growth. 

The survey results also indicated that the longer the time spent out of work, the more challenging it is to return. 

“Ultimately, the onus is not just on the female professionals – it requires concerted effort and shared responsibility among employers, governments and societies at large,” added Toki.  

The report underscored that the vast pool of talent brought by women re-entering the workforce is crucial for the success of businesses across the region. 

“We remain committed to advancing gender equality within our firm as a key priority for our growth and development. While there is still ground to cover, we are encouraged by the strides we have made in challenging biases and fostering an inclusive environment for women,” said Bassam Hajjhamad, Qatar country senior partner and consulting lead at PwC Middle East.  

PwC concluded the report by stating that embracing women’s roles in the workforce is not only a moral imperative but also a key catalyst for growth in the region. 

In November 2023, the World Bank stated that Gulf Cooperation Council countries have witnessed “a remarkable increase” in female labor force participation as the region steadily pursues its economic diversification journey. 

 A report by the International Monetary Fund the following month noted that countries in the GCC region have increased their average female labor force participation by more than 10 percent over the past two decades. 

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