By Sunita Rappai
Rasha Abdul Menem wakes at 5.30 am each working day and prepares breakfast for her family. She then travels 90 minutes by bus and minibus, dropping her two-year-old daughter at nursery before arriving for work at a Kheir Zaman supermarket in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-biggest city.
The 38-year-old mother-of-two doesn’t only work at the Kheir Zaman store, however—she manages it.
“I work harder as a manager because I don’t want anyone to say I am slacking off because I’m a woman,” said Rasha, the first woman to manage a store in the Metro Markets group, Egypt’s largest food retailer and a subsidiary of the Al Mansour Group.
“There were a lot of sensitivities,” she adds. “My male counterparts didn’t want me to apply for the store manager position, but my manager supported me. I was acting manager for almost a year before I got the job. I used that time to build better relations with my colleagues and we now support each other as one family.”
Although Rasha’s deserved success is a sign of how women are steadily progressing in the workforce in Egypt and across the Middle East and North Africa, serious challenges—and a large gender gap—remain.
About half of Egypt’s graduates are women, but only 23 percent of women work in the country’s formal labor force. For men, that same number is 76 percent. Across most of the Middle East and North Africa the story is the same, with the formal workforce similarly dominated by men.
Women struggle to get a foothold in the region for reasons that include practical barriers, such as finding transport or childcare, to longstanding social norms and cultural beliefs.
Attitudes are slowly changing, however—and companies and governments are waking up to the fact that gender equality is not only a social and moral imperative, but also an economic necessity.
Across the world, countries are losing $172 trillion in wealth because of differences in lifetime earnings between women and men, according to a recent World Bank Group study.
One company in Egypt working hard to tap women’s skills is Rasha’s employer, the Al Mansour Group, which partnered with IFC in 2017 to increase its hiring, retention, and promotion of women.
IFC helped the company analyze its human resources data, interview senior leaders and managers, and lead focus groups with men and women store workers on gender diversity. The goal was to increase the number of women working at the company—and ensure an increasing number are promoted to more senior positions.
IFC and Al Mansour renewed their partnership in 2020 through IFC’s Egypt Women’s Employment Program, launched in July 2020 to boost the share of women in the workforce of select client companies, creating business benefits for those firms.
Walid Labadi, IFC Country Manger for Egypt, said, “Private sector companies in Egypt are realizing the potential of the female workforce to overcome skill and talent shortages and spur economic growth. More flexible, remote, and family-friendly working arrangements benefit companies and support both their female and male employees.”
IFC’s partnership with the Al Mansour Group has begun yielding results. Last year, the group appointed a second woman manager at a Kheir Zaman store in Assiut. This manager was instrumental in helping open six new stores in Upper Egypt—remarkable in an area where cultural norms are more entrenched than in big cities like Alexandria and Cairo.
In addition, Metro Markets recently dedicated an issue of its internal quarterly newsletter to the importance of women in the workplace and highlights women star employees each month on its Facebook page.
Seif El Batanouni, Al Mansour Group Head of Corporate Affairs, said, “We already offer equal pay and equal opportunities, but our long-term vision is to increase our number of women employees by changing the mindset. Women can do almost any job a man can, from management to quality control to warehousing. Improving gender diversity will improve our competitiveness and profitability and also help socio-economically because women usually invest more of their income in their families.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new and formidable challenge to Egypt’s working women, many of whom have struggled to find childcare amid school closures.
Metro Markets responded by introducing more flexible working hours, allowing Rasha and others to juggle family and work commitments.
“Managers have to take into account women’s working hours and commuting time and also transportation means,” she says. “For example, my manager takes into account that I’m a woman and doesn’t assign me to stay on night shifts.”
She is also delighted to be a trail blazer and role model to other women.
“I feel my female colleagues were encouraged after my promotion. Now, more females are applying for bigger positions…and it’s not just an all-male team, we have four women working at the branch. Gender should not be part of the equation. If I’m capable and experienced, why wouldn’t I take the job?”
Published November 2020