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Paths To Progress, A Forum Staged By Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Female Fusion, And Entrepreneur Middle East, Spurs Conversations On Gender Equity

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In 2022, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report showed that the UAE ranked first across all Arab countries and 68th globally, which was four spots higher than its position in the previous year. Indeed, it is a milestone that speaks volumes of how the nation’s gender equity measures have reaped success over the years. But while there is plenty to celebrate about, there also seems to be a quiet collective agreement across the UAE business ecosystem that there is still room for improvement when it comes to achieving gender equity.

That sentiment was on full display on May 10, 2023, when the Dubai campus of Heriot-Watt University, a pioneer of higher education in the UAE, played host to Paths To Progress, an event jointly staged by the university along with Female Fusion, a global digital membership for female entrepreneurs that helps them start, build, grow and scale their businesses, and Entrepreneur Middle East, one of the most authoritative business magazines in the region. Held under the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, #EmbraceEquity, the forum brought together individuals from the education, healthtech, retail, and commerce sectors to discuss and debate ways on how they can truly embrace equity within their workplaces.

The event was kicked off by Claire Roper-Browning, Regional Director at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, following which Professor Dame Heather McGregor, Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, gave the keynote address. Titled “Mentorship Matters: Paving The Way For The Female Leaders Of The Future,” the presentation offered a realistic view on how, and why, male professionals have a role in ensuring their female counterparts get a seat at the tables the latter are often blocked from.

Professor Dame Heather McGregor, Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai. Photo by Entrepreneur Middle East.

Dame McGregor did this by offering an honest appraisal of her own corporate journey, which has seen her grow from being an investment banker, to becoming one of the founding members of The 30% Club, a UK-based association that aims to boost female representation at board and c-suite levels across the globe, to, now being at the helm of an educational institution. “Women hold up half the sky, as the saying goes,” Dame McGregor said. “It is women and my female colleagues who have helped me for half my life. But at every key stage in my career, things wouldn’t have worked out had I not reached out to a man for assistance. Life is co-educational- we must always remember that.”

Next on the event’s agenda was a masterclass by Jennifer Blandos, CEO of Female Fusion, targeting the entrepreneurially minded in the audience. Titled “Avoiding Entrepreneurial Pitfalls: Lessons Learned And Strategies for Success,” Blandos’ presentation offered the audience a very hands-on ten-step approach to how entrepreneurial success can be forged. “What I see very often when I meet entrepreneurs is that there are certain things that work and don’t work,” Blandos said. “And so for me, today, even if all my employees end up being sick for a day, I can take care of my business- from accounts to sending out emails to handling social media. So, you must know the basics!” Blandos then cautioned entrepreneurs who remain averse to using technology by adding, “I’m 49 years old, and I have learnt how to use technology, so nobody else has an excuse. Technology opens up the world for your business!”

Jennifer Blandos, CEO of Female Fusion. Photo by Entrepreneur Middle East.

Blandos then steered her conversation towards a territory that many entrepreneurs sometimes tend to overlook as part of their success strategy: wellbeing. “I’ve had cancer twice,” Blandos revealed. “And that is a result of me not taking care of myself- putting everybody but me first. I interviewed my 14-year-old daughter for a podcast, and I asked her what piece of advice she would give to herself when she’s my age. She said to me, ‘You need to take care of yourself first! You are number one before anyone else.'” Blandos’ advice, of course, is extremely timely, given that mental health issues among entrepreneurs continues to deplete. In fact, a 2023 report by Startup Snapshot shows that the mental health of 72% of the surveyed startup founders was adversely affected, whilst 37% suffer from anxiety.

Related: Leveling The Playing Field For Female Entrepreneurs

Following Blandos’ session, the final event of the day was a panel discussion. Moderated by Tom Urquhart, a presenter at Dubai One TV and Dubai Eye 103.8 FM, the session was titled “Gender Equality: Not Just A Women’s Issue.” The panelists included Claire Roper-Browning, Regional Director, Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Ritesh Somani, Director, Amazon Logistics MENA, Gunjan Shroff, Partner, KPMG Lower Gulf, and Perihan Abouzeid, founder and CEO, PeriCare. The discussion that ensued focused primarily on exploring the role men can -and should- play in advancing gender equity within their workplaces.

From left to right: Tom Urquhart, presenter, Dubai One; Perihan Abouzeid, founder and CEO, PeriCare, Gunjan Shroff, Partner, KPMG Lower Gulf, Ritesh Somani, Director, Amazon Logistics MENA, and Claire Roper-Browning, Regional Director, Heriot-Watt University Dubai. Photo by Entrepreneur Middle East.

For instance, when sharing his views on how Amazon Logistics MENA has introduced initiatives to incorporate greater female inclusion, Somani spoke of the Female Delivery Associate Program launched in Saudi Arabia. “It was the first of its kind in Saudi,” Somani said. “But it took a lot of time and investment for us to make a mindset change in people that this is a genuine advantage for us, and not just about driving compliance or chasing metrics. And I’m proud to say that while the numbers are still growing, right now, around 5% of our delivery associates in the Kingdom are females.”

PeriCare’s Abouzeid, however, was quick to point out that while initiatives to include more women are important, there is also an equal need to reconsider existing workplace policies for female employees, and how they’re structured. “For example, instead of just increasing maternity leave and making it longer -because a lot of companies take pride in offering a longer maternity leave than the legal one- we recommend calling it a parental leave instead,” Abouzeid said. “The reason being that when you offer a longer maternity leave, any hiring manager can subconsciously be biased against hiring a woman, knowing that she might leave work for three months or more.”

Abouzeid’s narrative proved to be the perfect segue for an interesting point put forward by KPMG Lower Gulf’s Shroff, who highlighted the dangers of leaving men out of the gender equity conversation. “While we’re talking about promoting women’s inclusivity and getting our numbers, we may sometimes be making the men feel a sense of perceived inequality,” Shroff said. “So, we’re driving more inequality in the system, when we start talking about this purely in terms of numbers alone. The other thing would be the emphasis we place on the importance of role models and mentors for women. But when we say that, it’s almost as if that is the best way to go. But I think what’s important for the mentors themselves is to understand that not everyone is walking on the same path that guarantees them success. At the end of the day, I may have a supportive ecosystem of family and friends, but that may not be the exact same case for somebody else.”

From left to right: Perihan Abouzeid, founder and CEO, PeriCare, Gunjan Shroff, Partner, KPMG Lower Gulf, Jen Blandos, CEO, Female Fusion, Ritesh Somani, Director, Amazon Logistics MENA, and Claire Roper-Browning, Regional Director, Heriot-Watt University Dubai. Photo by Entrepreneur Middle East.

Shroff’s comments were validated by Heriot-Watt University Dubai’s Roper-Browning, who touched upon how she had no female role model to look up to during her previous career as a sports marketer. “My boss at the time, a male, was the one who gave me very frank advice when I received an offer from another sports marketing institution,” Roper-Browning recalled. “In fact, he told me something that I didn’t really want to hear, and that was that I won’t just have to break glass ceilings, I would have to literally go through them to make it to the top, because there were no female role models. It wasn’t the advice I was looking for at the time, but I took it on board, and that’s when I made the switch to education.”

On that note, Somani noted how education still remains the number one starting point if men are to be incorporated into achieving gender equity. “I think one of the greatest dilemmas for male employees that still exists is understanding if the term ‘allyship’ is a verb or a noun,” Somani said. “And so, when we speak of better policies and more engaging conversations to shift the needle on gender equity, men need to be educated on the topic better. From there, we can ensure the mindset shifts that are needed to drive change.”

Related: When Women Win: How The Middle East Is Showcasing Female Success Across Entrepreneurship And Tech

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