Why women are key to leading the Middle East's sustainable movement

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As we gear up for COP28, ENGIE Solutions’ HR leadership team demonstrates the clear connection between sustainability and diversity

By: ENGIE Solutions’ HR Leadership team

Rafika Belaidi, Head of Human Resources – GCC

Caroline Hill, HR Manager – UAE

Divia Pillai, HR Manager – Qatar

Asma Alqahtani, HR Manager – KSA

The climate crisis has laid bare how the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations continue to bear the brunt of climate change. This is particularly true for women who are overexposed to the impact of climate change – according to the UNDP, women represent 80% of people displaced by climate change globally.

Despite this, women have traditionally been underrepresented in efforts to promote sustainability. In sustainability-related organizations such as the energy sector, women face gender bias, limited opportunities for career advancement, unequal pay, and limited representation in leadership positions, among other barriers. Consequently, successful climate action remains a pipedream when half the population is effectively excluded from the decision-making process. As we gear up for COP28, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate the clear connection between sustainability and diversity.

First, there are irrefutable business benefits to having women in organizations at every level. Several studies have shown that gender diversity encourages innovation and, as a result, business performance. Gartner’s research reveals that “differences of age, ethnicity, gender and other dimensions foster high performance.” The research firm estimates that 75% of organizations with frontline decision-making teams reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture exceeded their financial targets last year.

Second, women bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table, which can help identify and address the root causes of environmental problems. For example, women may better understand how environmental issues affect their communities and families as they are generally more involved in fundamental societal issues such as food security and health.

Third, women are often the primary caregivers in their families and communities and can be powerful change agents. By empowering women and supporting their leadership in sustainability efforts and climate action, we can help nurture more resilient communities. Research shows that women are the most likely change makers for climate action in economic areas, from corporate leadership to product development.

Rafika Belaidi, Head of Human Resources – GCC

Incidentally, COVID-19 was an unlikely catalyst for more women to lead the global sustainability process. The pandemic underscored the need to build resilience as a core business strategy and adapt to systemic risks. COP26 in 2021, held in the pandemic’s aftermath, amplified alarm and urgency around the transition to net zero, with many cross-sector organizations making climate pledges for the first time. The result is the rise of sustainability as a core corporate strategy and the meteoric rise of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) position. In 2020, the number of CSOs across Fortune 500 companies rose to 95, growing by more than 228 percent since 2011. In 2021, 31 Fortune 500s appointed their first CSO.

As well as its sustainability impact in having board-level representation, the CSO position is seen as a platform for women to access the board room. Women are advancing in sustainability much faster than other business areas; female representation in CSO roles in the U.S. rose to 54 percent in 2021 from 28 percent in 2011. Further, unlike other C-suite positions, the CSO role is new and non-traditional and is, therefore, largely shielded from entrenched biases.

The Middle East is not immune to this shift. The region hosting of both COP27 and COP28 has shone the spotlight on the region’s sustainability efforts. This attention has also spotlighted regional female sustainability leaders and regional efforts underway to address climate change. The UAE, which hosts COP28 this year, has appointed HE Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri as the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, leading the country’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change impact, protect local ecosystems, and enhance its food and water security.

As a global sustainability leader with a world-renowned diversity and inclusive platform, we can play a vital thought leadership role in helping advance the regional sustainability drive and the role of women in this effort. In our case, we began with a clear corporate framework on how the organization can contribute to a sustainable future and having women partner in this success. ENGIE’s DEI [Diversity, Equality, and Inclusivity] campaign focuses on uprooting the “Unconscious Bias’. We have subsequently nurtured a culture within ENGIE Solutions that create an environment for women to thrive in a predominantly male-dominated industry by consciously working towards eradicating stereotypes and unintentional practices that make women feel unwelcome in such sector; intentionally working towards eliminating the pay gap; enforcing a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy; providing family-friendly work schedules; and embracing diversity, but not giving special treatment to any one gender or age group.

Caroline Hill, HR Manager – UAE

With DEI as the driver, there are more women workforce across ENGIE Solutions. We have women in prominent sustainability positions, from junior to senior engineers and management. Women leaders across the Group at ENGIE demonstrate the value of strategizing in this manner; our CEO Catherine MacGregor underlines this ‘that equality between women and men is strategic for ENGIE Group.’

While every company’s experience is different, there are fundamental approaches to supporting more women in the sustainability sector. First, hiring and promotion practices should be inclusive and bias-free, and corporate leaders should work to establish clear diversity and inclusion policies, prioritize diversity in recruitment efforts, and conduct regular unconscious bias training for all employees. There’s also a need to develop quotas or targets for the representation of women in leadership positions and create a supportive environment that empowers women to advance in their careers.

Further along, creating a culture of inclusivity, offering mentorship programs and leadership training, promoting equal pay and benefits, and implementing policies that support work-life balance and flexible work arrangements succeed. Additionally, companies can work to increase the representation of women in the sector by partnering with schools and universities to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Ultimately, sustainability is a team effort where we should employ all resources towards an urgent purpose. Entrenched obstacles need to be shattered through and collectively work to elevate the role of women in climate action.

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