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Why We Lead: A Conversation with Riham Adel

WE Lead Scholar Riham Adel discusses why it's critical for countries to invest in women during the pandemic.

Article by Riham Adel February 2, 2021 //   7 minute read

Women in my home country of Egypt have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, just as in the rest of the world, and we must be part of the economic recovery if it’s to be successful.

I’m proudly working on providing part of the solution by building a platform to give experienced women who have left the workforce the chance to find job opportunities that enable them to freelance from home or work on a project basis with employers from anywhere in the world.

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, the most important being that countries have to unite to overcome the pandemic’s devastating social and economic consequences on both women and men. But in what should be humanity’s battle against the virus’s consequences, women are paying a much heavier price: They have lost many more jobs than men in the pandemic-induced recession, and their incomes have fallen, causing women’s overall average earnings to decline. This has caused the gender pay gap to grow and reversed the limited progress that had been made on gender equality, women leadership, and women’s rights.

But we can still turn things around and come out stronger, as human beings do best when we act together. The George W. Bush Institute’s Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Farhat Popal have given us a road map to follow in their policy position paper Women and Girls: Investing in Women’s Economic Empowerment – and one that is applicable in all countries, from the United States to my home in Egypt.

I am very interested in advancing women’s leadership and economic inclusion as both a Bush Institute WE Lead Scholar and a female leader working in the employment sector in Egypt – the Arab country with the largest female population, at more than 50 million women. Here is how I think we must proceed in a post-COVID world:

  • Women must be represented in pandemic economic recovery plans and related decision-making. As the hardest hit by this pandemic, women must help design supporting programs and create policies in their countries to ensure that their needs are met.
  • We should place women’s economic lives at the heart of pandemic response and recovery plans and take serious action to help women rejoin and contribute to the economy. The international community should fund and implement related programs to focus on these main points:
  1. Designing a fair employment system and working policies enforcing gender equality, nondiscrimination and equal pay.
  2. Narrowing gender-based education gaps and investing in women’s education tailored to current and future employment-market needs.
  3. Ensuring women remain in and expand their participation in the formal labor market by developing and training women to become employable in different sectors and helping them land secure jobs.
  • We must promote a wider scope for women’s entrepreneurship and support women starting small businesses by providing the necessary training, mentorship, and funding.
  • Affordable child care facilities must be provided to retain working mothers in the labor force.
  • A new work-from-home employment system must be built. A parallel, modern, formal work-from-home system will provide women who can’t accommodate an out-of-home job with one that is easier to combine with childcare.
  • Women should have more inclusive roles in rebuilding their nations and economies as more participate in society’s business and governing bodies. They need strongholds in their respective societies to enable effective contributions to developing solutions. This will promote transformative change for equality because women will be able to participate in the drafting, revision, and/or approval of laws, policies and strategies.

Women leaders are the ones most capable of lifting up other, less privileged, women and giving them access to a better life through economic inclusion, skills development, and women’s rights awareness.

Women are also on the front lines of containing the spread of the pandemic, so highlighting their needs and leadership will strengthen the response to the crisis.

Giving women more seats at the table will also allow them to focus on important women’s issues such as paid and unpaid work, gender equality in work, essential services and enablers of economic opportunities, legal protection, political voice, physical security and autonomy.

Rebuilding our nations’ economies, and the global economy, is our shared responsibility – policymakers, the private sector, civil society, and individuals alike. The international community must work together to tackle the consequences we have all experienced. But the solution starts at the local level and with local needs. Each country must focus on its own socioeconomic impact to limit the economic and human cost of COVID-19 – and that includes women.

Local governments and organizations should fund local support programs and seek new projects for those who have left the workforce entirely as well as informal workers. Having access to new job opportunities, financial support, social security, tax exemptions, and health care services will boost local communities.

The generation of young girls who are witnessing the insecurities and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic need specially designed programs and intensive promotion and awareness to motivate them toward entrepreneurship and self-employment. This will help them adapt to the new norms and realize that they have a big responsibility in creating their own jobs and building their own successes, whether they join the workforce as entrepreneurs or as formal employees.

Programs that present women as role models by telling their success stories will develop and motivate young women and girls – encouraging them to seek the education that they deserve. They will also ultimately boost short- and long-term economic development.

For my part, I have been inspired and motivated by my participation in women’s leadership programs such as WE Lead at the Bush Institute to partner with a great woman leader to start building a global network of female leaders called the Global Women Leaders Circle – GWLC. Through it, we will support and enhance each other’s skills and empower women leaders wherever they are.