What I Learned About Diversity Working in the Middle East

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Nov 24, 2014

“But, the next office to open will be special.”

It’s the all-women office in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) that MediaCom MENA will be opening. This was the statement by CEO Nick Barron in his recent essay for the magazine Campaign Middle East.

When discussing the all-women’s office, he said it has elicited positive response among his current clients. The office will have 8-15 women on staff.

His reasoning for his staffing model is because 70 percent of the ad dollars spent in KSA are targeted at women because they make the decisions in many categories, even when the actual purchase is made by men

It’s a business case

In the entire essay, Nick Barron never mentioned anything about diversity. He looked at this decision as a business case and he wanted his staff to understand their clients.

As I read this I thought, “what a breath of fresh air.” This staffing model would not have even raised eyebrows if they had gone with all men. Not a peep would be heard. I applaud him for taking this step.

The advertising industry, as well as technology, is known for basically having a homogenous workforce. The big tech companies recently released their numbers — somewhat embarrassingly — but assured everyone that this would change. My thought is, “don’t hold your breath.”

Every year at the 4A’s conference (the American Association of Advertising Agencies) there is always a session on diversity, and every year, the story is the same — “They are working on increasing the ranks.”

No diversity problem in the Middle East

One of the things I noticed during my tenure here in the Middle East is that there is no such thing as a diversity problem. You go into any company and you would think that you are in a mini-United Nations. There are all type of nationalities in all types of positions. I suppose their recruiters use a different filter when it comes to hiring.

As we began hiring in our offices here in Dubai, I noticed that a large majority of our clients were Arabic. However, I get a lot of resumes from people that are from the U.S. or India. As we go out on calls, my team is very fluent in making the transition between languages with little or no effort. As a result, we look for people that are multi-lingual that can speak Arabic.

On a recent call, I heard from a company in Pakistan that was going to require a follow up presentation. My next step was to reach out to someone on the team who was a Pakistani. Again, this just makes good business sense.

As I follow industries who are getting called out for not having a workforce that is diverse, my only thought comes back to that if they thought diversity was a serious factor in getting the business on track, they would improve it right away.

Companies in the Middle East are not hung up on this kind of selectivity. At my prior company we had over 20 nationalities and no one gave it a second thought. What companies look for in the Middle East is talent. Now there are concerns about each country  adding incentives for companies to hire their own nationalities, but for the most part as they look for talent, it does not matter what or where you came from or what they look like.

What does diversity mean to you?

In the U.S., and in some industries (like high tech), there is always same old excuses. “We can’t get enough women with these kind of degrees,” or, “We can’t find qualified, diverse talent.” That was always a kicker for me; since when does diversity mean not qualified?

I had one encounter that gave me some insight and clarity on how diversity is viewed at a lot of companies. While sitting on a recent panel discussion about talent management, the question of diversity came up and one of the panelists from a Big 4 accounting firm said that their numbers of diverse employees was low.

He mentioned that one of his company’s major clients had a big issue with his firm’s commitment to diverse talent. This client stated that they are a very diverse company and they want their vendors to reflect that. When this guy brought the concern back to the leadership team, he said that one partner said that in no way would the firm “lower their standards” in their hiring process.

In other words, this partner thought that diversity meant lowering their hiring standards. It’s a perfect example of the Rorschach Test that is used in psychology.

In that all-female office I mentioned earlier, the women were all hired for their skill set; they were not looked upon as a group who were not qualified. If the “qualification/diversity” thing is your filter, and you enter into a recruiting conversation that way, then you have already lost.

No pre-conceived notions

So, I want to tell all you American talent hunters out there, think about recruiting over here in the Middle East where you can’t just blindly hire everyone that looks like you. These recruiters over here recruit from all over the world since a great majority of workers are expats.

You have to hire from countries that you have no pre-conceived notions about. Of all the agencies that I have visited with over here, none of them have that diversity problem that they seemingly discuss at the 4A conference every year.

I recommended a diverse candidate to someone a few years back who was 2-3 years out of college but seemed to be a real marketer. I thought she would have made a terrific addition to our company. When I followed up some time later, the recruiter said, “I just can’t put my finger on it, but I just felt she did not have it.” Today, that young lady is a big-shot marketing executive at Google.

So when you can’t put your finger on it, maybe you should just clean out the filter you are using and come back to the table unfiltered. In the end, we are all trying to find talent that will bring value to the role and the organization.

The country of origin, gender, skin color or that psychology test should never, ever be a part of it.