As organisations work to harness and develop their people’s skills in order to prepare for the future, no investment is more crucial for our region than supporting women throughout their careers and driving gender diversity within the workforce. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says the Middle East and North Africa are collectively losing an estimated $575 billion a year due to the legal and social barriers that exist around women’s access to jobs and careers.

Progress has been slow; less than a quarter of women in the region are employed. But diversity is integral to businesses’ sustainability and overall success. Boosting the number of women in work is not just a moral imperative - it also has a measurable impact on the bottom line. Government policy and regulation have an important role to play. Legislative frameworks should be up-to-date and fit for purpose, and should include labour and family laws as well as efforts to improve women’s access to finance.

Governments in our region are doing what they can. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been pushing for gender diversity and has made significant progress over the past 20 years. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which started this drive more recently, has set an ambitious target of 30% female participation in the labour force by 2030 as part of its National Vision 2030.

Through government support, women now make up 66% of public-sector workers in the UAE, with 30% in leadership roles. But this isn’t necessarily reflected in private sector companies, which bring overall female participation in the workforce down to 40.6%.

As part of PwC’s Women in Work Index - Insights from MENA survey, 3,000 people from the UAE, KSA and Egypt were asked if they believed governments should intervene in private companies and set targets for gender diversity. A resounding 66% agreed. This isn’t about positive discrimination, it is about setting targets to call out unconscious bias and drive equity in the workforce.

But our region cannot rely on its governments to drive this alone. This falls on each of us to create equal opportunities for female professionals across all industries. Pay equality is important, but creating an inclusive culture is about much more than that. PwC’s Women In Work Index - Insights from MENA survey shows that people across the region want gender equality in terms of opportunity and access to leadership positions, as well as support for employees.

Organizations can provide this by openly discussing and raising awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias, and ensuring the right tone is set from the top - by tying diversity to business goals, for example, and setting up mentorship programmes.

As countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council work to diversify their economies, adding more female employees expands the talent pool that companies can tap into as they seek to accelerate their industrial diversification away from oil and gas.

Despite challenges including lack of support after a career break, deep-seated social norms and gender stereotypes and bias, however, the gender equality agenda overall is progressing across the region. But it is not moving fast enough. Governments and companies alike need to take bold actions to improve gender diversity in the workforce today.

This is not going to be easy. There is no doubt that this will require not just talk, but a real commitment to action. We must all work together to identify what works for our region and how to implement it effectively, and at scale. But the effort needed pales in comparison to the cost of doing nothing and continuing with the status quo.