More than two-thirds of UAE companies do not intend to increase the number of working mothers on their staff this year, citing concerns that female employees with children may take time off to have another child, according to a new study.
Only 32 per cent of companies in the UAE said they planned to increase the proportion of female staff with children during the year, according to the report by Regus, an international office space letting agency.
The figures match a global downturn in the number of companies seeking to boost representation of working mothers in the office.
Internationally, just 36 per cent of the 10,000 companies surveyed said they intended to hire more working mothers, compared to 44 per cent of firms last year.
The study attributed the drop to employer concerns that family priorities may distract working mothers.
About half the surveyed employers in the UAE said flexibility was their main concern, and 45 per cent said their main worry was that women may take time off to have another child.
However, experts and employers agreed that this was not a valid concern and that more focus needed to be placed on an employee’s skill set, rather than gender.
“If employers want to recoup their investment in women and retain them for the long term, they need to better appreciate how much turnover and job dissatisfaction can be driven by non-work factors,” said Dr May al Dabbagh, the director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government.
“Numerous research findings show that, globally, the return on investment in women is exceptionally high because of their hardworking capacity.”
Some international companies, at least, do seem to acknowledge the value that women, including working mothers, add to the workforce, and are beginning to take action accordingly.
Tariq Baloch, a UAE associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, an international law firm, said his company had recently tried to dispel the notion that a woman in a law firm – which required intensive hours – had to give up the hope of having children and a family.
“In four specific cases we have allowed young mothers working in our group to have flexible working time. We know there is a lot of work to be done, but they need not be at the workplace and the partners are confident they can leave early and login from home to work there when needed,” Mr Baloch said.
“The motivation for this arrangement was the desire of the partners not to lose their star associates to the stereotype that once they were mothers they could no longer have a place within [the group].”
While the number of employers willing to hire working mothers has dwindled, Regus officials said the UAE was reported to have the highest level of female participation in employment in the GCC, with 59 per cent of women contributing to the economy.
Different companies had to use different strategies to foster the kind of culture that values and encourages the contribution of women to the work context, Dr al Dabbagh said, rather than focusing on outdated or superficial indicators such as “face time” at the office.
“If companies want to remain competitive, and attract and retain talent, they need to shed the old mindset. It is clear that outdated work models are detrimental to a company in the long term,” she said.