Mohammad Naciri is the Regional Director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific. Prior to joining UN Women, Mohammad was the Deputy Country Director of UNDP in Yemen, where he supported the country in the formulation of its Gender Strategy and the Gender Responsive Budgeting process. He has worked in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Cambodia, dealing with issues from human trafficking to ethnic cleansing.
In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Mohammad Naciri talks about the need to create a level playing field for women to succeed at work. Here are the excerpts of the interview with Mohammad.
What are some patterns you’ve noticed over the years about women at work, and things they could be doing better to advance their careers?
Rather than focus on what women need to do better to advance their careers, it is important that we all take responsibility for building labor markets and workplaces that allow all staff members, men and women, to thrive, learn, and ultimately be as productive as they can be. In some cases this means gender-specific actions and policies, such as maternity leave but it is also about addressing the unconscious bias of companies that result in, for instance, overrepresentation of one gender in certain job functions, or in inherently discriminatory criteria for promotion.
We also know that across the world, women take on more of the unpaid care work at home and in their communities, such as taking care of children, elders, or household tasks. So let us first ensure that there’s a level playing field, that women have as much time to focus on their work and career, and that they are given equal opportunities to grow and advance in their workplaces.
And even then, we still find that gender discrimination and gender stereotypes in the world of work - like everywhere else - have resulted in longlasting impact in the way we all perceive gender and gender roles. For that I have been pleased to see the rising awareness and concrete initiatives where women support and empower other women to grow their leadership ambitions and skills though mentorship programs and role modeling. Also, I am very optimistic about the increased questioning of stereotypes and gender norms when it comes to boys' and girls' choice of studies and careers and the attention to the principle of 'if you can see it, you can be it'.
Despite the fact that the business case for gender diversity is clear, the overall women's progress at work remains stalled. As a leader, do you think it’s time for corporations to take bold steps to balance the scale?
The World Economic Forum has estimated that it will take about a 100 years to close the gender gap if we continue as of now, even longer in the Southeast Asian region where I currently work. This we cannot accept. We are not living up to our own commitments to promote and protect women's rights, and we are also harming the prospects for sustainable, inclusive, economic growth that research shows is within reach if we succeed in creating a more gender-equal economy and society. We will only achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 if we meet the goals and targets of Sustainable Development Goal 5 which is setting targets specifically for women's social, economic, and political empowerment.
UN Women, therefore, continues to focus on strengthening and promoting the business case for gender equality, and we do that by partnering with the private sector such as under the EU-supported WeEmpowerAsia program, a regional initiative (linked to a global movement), to get more companies on board to actively and concretely integrate gender equality into the way they employ, procure, market and do business.
What work still needs to be done to level the playing field in the c-suite and boardroom? How do you see the future of women leadership?
We also need a critical mass to choose from to get more women leaders: organizations must take conscious steps to build appropriate pipelines for inclusive and diverse leadership, and this takes time and effort, and in some cases also special measures, and not only to reach gender parity, but also other kinds of diversity so our organizations much better represent the communities and societies we serve and work with.
How can women employees create a great work-life balance for themselves?
As I mentioned before, it is not for women to create work-life balance, it is the system that needs to change so that we all, men and women, find that balance. In Europe right now there is a lot of discussion about parental leave and family leave as an expansion of or addition to maternity leave, and to institutionalize that men receive their share of care and bonding time with their children for instance. But it is also a recognition of a growing need for other forms of care as populations are aging and social protection systems (and family structures) are changing. But we know that these improvements in people's so-called private spheres benefit the economy also – the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report every year shows that economies with a higher level of gender equality are stronger economies. The business case is clear.
Also, much focus right now is on the future of work and the way technology increasingly impact jobs and the ways we work. Let us use technology for the good and ensure, for instance, that some of the unpaid care work that are now disproportionately on women's shoulders be decreased or eased by technology. In developing countries this means better access to drinking water and electricity to ease household chores which are still mainly women's work but this is also relevant in more technologically advanced societies: information technology continues to provide new ways of working remotely or allow flexible time schedules that can benefit work-life balance for both women and men. So let us make sure that women are also part of designing and developing this new technology because they have different experiences and see different ways of use and benefits.
A report by McKinsey says there’s a positive correlation between a more ethnically and gender-diverse leadership team and an increase in profits. But not many organizations have been able to bet on the resultant advantage. What's your take on this?
I think it is changing. We see that companies are very interested in doing their share to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and have really taken them on as a way of framing and strengthening CSR and ESG work. The environmental issues may have been what many companies have focused on first but we see that corporations are increasingly interested in working actively with social and political issues such as gender equality. They see it as equally important for their business - for their business outcomes, for their reputation, and for their ability to attract and retain the best talent.
Why are companies failing to close pay gaps?
With the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other partners, UN Women runs the ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ campaign. Again, we see how unconscious (and conscious) bias is unfairly impacting the way women are paid for their work. Also, the lack of pay transparency is making it very difficult to measure and document the gender pay gap. In this regard, we have seen some good initiatives from governments, such as the UK's policy that all employers with 250 or more employees must publish and report specific figures on their gender pay gap. It is when the discrimination is clearly shown with data and documentation that we know what we are up against and we can plan and make changes.
How to make equality at the workplace a leadership agenda?
Gender equality and leadership must be on the agenda everywhere in order to also be achieved in the workplace: in the household, in our communities, in our schools and universities, in our governments and in our businesses. We have enough evidence to show that when women are empowered to lead equally in the social, economic and political spheres, then we have equitable and prosperous societies where no one is left behind. We still need to convince some leaders about this fact. We are working on this and we are winning: because it is smart when women lead companies that serve the fastest-growing consumer group (women) in the world; it is smart that women are involved in making the policies that impact them as much as men, and a level playing field is the smartest thing to do to unleash the full potential of both women and men.