Pandemic imperils working mothers’ careers: Q&A with IFC’s Laila ElRefai

April 17, 2021


COVID-19 has forced many women — particularly mothers — out of the workforce. In honor of Mother’s Day, we caught up with Laila El Refai, MENA gender officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) on how the private sector can help. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


What are the latest gender employment numbers in Egypt? 

Laila ElRefai: What I can tell you is that while half of the university graduates are women, only one in four women works. In contrast three of four men in Egypt work. The gap is very obvious when we put it that way. There’s also an issue regarding the continuity of women in the workplace, especially after marriage and childbearing. That’s possibly why many companies are looking into retaining women.

How does creating a mother-friendly company culture benefit an organization?

ElRefai: In the beginning, we were promoting the concept of work flexibility to create better working conditions for women, but all of a sudden – during the pandemic lockdowns – flexibility became overnight the only mode of survival for business continuity. Adopting a flexible workplace practices does not only positively influence working mothers. All employees benefit from it. Pre-COVID-19, the IFC was eager to make employers realize how, through adopting a flexible culture, employees can engage in the workplace and their careers while still taking care of children or elders or domestic responsibilities. Surveys show that this increases employee loyalty and retention.

What are some limitations to adopting a flexible work environment for mothers?

ElRefai: Local companies worry a lot about adopting flexible workplace culture, and rightfully so.  Many companies don’t have the IT or infrastructure needed for employees to operate remotely. Some have trust issues vis-a-vis their employees, they worry that if they introduce flexible work practices, their employees won’t work as productively. With a flexible workplace comes a lot of responsibility on the employees’ side. It can take a long time for the company and employer to enhance their existing trust in such a remote work relationship and for employees to adjust their routines and calibrate their work discipline to an often less structured work context. Focusing on deliverables is still a very new idea in the Egyptian workplace. It takes a certain management style to implement that.

What kind of requests from working mothers are not easily approved?

ElRefai: Some companies require that employees go to the office two or three days a week. Given the fact that children are schooling from home, some mothers may not be able to meet that requirement, forcing them to choose between home and work. I have heard of several examples where women were unable to reconcile workplace presence with homeschooling and had to resign. I imagine that this is the reality for many working mothers in Egypt

What changes can companies make to better accommodate working mothers?

ElRefai: The way to go is not to stick to working hours but instead to stick to output. Working mothers can be very well-organized. I know that many working mothers start their day early in the morning and end it late at night. It’s inspiring and we look at them in awe, always amazed at how they can juggle between working and taking care of their children. Companies could benefit greatly if they took out their employees out of the 9-5 work schedule and enabled them to deliver in the way they are able to deliver given their competing domestic responsibilities.

What other policies should companies put into consideration to support working mothers?

ElRefai:  Checking in with employees on their mental wellbeing and health and having a conversation on how the pandemic is affecting them is something that can support the trusting professional relationship between the employer and the employee.

How can private sector companies engage women who left their jobs to join back the labor force?

ElRefai: Through returnship programs. Such programs target experienced women who left the workforce and find ways to hire them back. Years after they leave their jobs, some women are ready to enter the market again, yet they often do not know-how. Companies are identifying these women as assets. They are always interested in hiring them because of their experience.

How does IFC help in this regard?

ElRefai: The IFC launched a new advisory program in July to improve women’s employment opportunities in Egypt by highlighting how private sector companies can tap into the country’s large, underutilized female talent pool and spur economic growth. The three-year program is helping create family-friendly, flexible workplaces to support Egyptian businesses in becoming more resilient, agile and inclusive, especially in times of crisis.

What’s the process like?

ElRefai: We assess the HR data of a company, talk to employees, run focus groups, and conduct discussions to pinpoint the key issues hindering the company from offering a family-friendly workplace. We help the companies collect gender data, analyze gender gaps in their workforce and develop an action plan. Sometimes the issue is about improving infrastructure, sometimes it’s about introducing family-friendly company policies or culture. We give our recommendations and offer the company solutions to help them implement the recommendations.

Who are some of your clients for this program?

ElRefai: We work with several leading companies including healthcare provider IDH, retailer Metro Markets and a leading financial institution in the banking sector.

What are some other ways to retain working mothers in the workforce?

ElRefai: Besides returnship programs, we are noticing an increased interest from employers in Egypt right now to seek support and guidance on how to create more family-friendly – and ultimately more women-friendly – workplaces. But it’s not just about increasing the awareness and capacity of firms to recruit and retain women through family-friendly workplaces.  I believe online career fairs for women are important for them to network with employers and find job opportunities.

Do you think companies will start prioritizing investing in family-friendly workplaces?

ElRefai: Many companies have had an eye-opening experience when they navigated the pandemic and lockdowns. They experienced remote and flex work firsthand, seen the benefits and they might not want to go back to how things were before COVID-19. Companies seem to recognize that remote and flex work can hit two birds with one stone. It is a beneficial way to operate and do business regardless of gender. At the same time, it allows working mothers in particular to thrive amidst a more flexible work environment and to have careers. Companies who miss on the opportunities of flexible and home-based work automatically lose the opportunity to recruit and retain more in particular. That means that they miss hiring from a larger and more diverse pool of employees that includes women but also talent from different governorates and even different time zones. If companies remove restrictions and are open to creating a virtual workspace then it will make their talent pool so much wider than imaginable. Mostly, it will work for working mothers!

What are some tips for balancing working and mothering?

ElRefai: I am always in awe at how well-organized many working mothers that I know are. But generally, my advice to any professional is to organize your days to the minute, stay calm and communicate your professional needs to your managers. Most importantly, don’t ask for preferential treatment. Know that if something is given to someone it should be given to everyone. Flexibility is for the benefit of the business at large.

What are ways companies can retain women with children?

ElRefai: COVID-19 or not, some companies are implementing policies for women not to return straight to work right after they give birth. They return gradually one day a week during the first month after their maternity leave expires, two days a week during the second month until they are eased back full-time. Some multinationals started this practice prior to COVID-19 and I think it’s great because women tend to feel overwhelmed and guilty leaving their babies all at once. We do not want to put a woman in a situation where she has to choose between home and work. Companies can benefit from making this smart decision. That way, they retain the valuable talent pool of high-performing returning mothers. Another idea to retain women post-maternity is adding a nursery in the workplace or partnering with one nearby.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

ElRefai: Everyone tends to talk about maternity leave and not so much about paternity leave. Part of the reason why some employers frown upon hiring women is they think women who become mothers one day will not prioritize work.  Yet, we are not giving men the opportunity to share responsibilities or engage with their newborns. They do not get the chance to benefit from the childbearing experience and contribute to shouldering the responsibility at home through paternity leaves. Many men would welcome the opportunity to spend time with children and build a connection with newborns. Also, when more men take paternity leave, maternity leave becomes less frown-upon by employers. It really could be a game-changer in the workplace culture.