“What’s it like being a woman business leader in the Middle East?” If I had a dirham for the number of times I’ve been asked that question then I wouldn’t need to go out to work at all.
Nonetheless it’s worth considering why this question adorns so many of my conversations – particularly with friends and colleagues from overseas. The implication – stated or otherwise – is that, as a woman, I must have found it difficult to climb the ladder: the prevalence of men in senior positions; the mindset that has women beholden to domestic duties while their husbands go out to work; the ancient traditions that have prevented women from venturing into offices and factories, laboratories and workshops. The list goes on.
Granted, such imagery has had more than a grain of truth in it, but times are changing. Women’s economic empowerment – the challenge of making sure that women participate in the workforce and develop and advance to senior positions – has recently taken firm root in the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The task now, however, is to ensure it permeates our business sector with equal success.
So, why now? Why is this such an important issue? After all, there is no shortage of challenges for our leaders to address. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council may have enjoyed an average annual growth rate of 6%-13% over the past 15 years but ours remains a region beset by high youth unemployment, for example, as well as lingering security instability and underwhelming economic integration. And that’s not even counting the impact that the fall in global oil prices is likely to have on future regional development.
Listing these challenges and complexities is one thing but solving them is quite another. They test our leaders day in, day out, and of easy solutions there are none. This means that we need the best and brightest to be present at decision-making tables – and this means women. Diverse teams deliver a diversity of perspectives and points of view. They stimulate innovation and problem-solving. They spark better debate and better ideas. In short, they lead to improved decisions, governance and results. The case is overwhelming.
There is an abundance of female talent becoming available – women now constitute more than 50% of university graduates in the region – but workforce participation rates remains too low, especially in the private sector, and there is limited advancement to senior positions and boardroom roles. What needs to happen now is to ensure this talent is transferred from lecture hall to workplace – and the sooner the better.
Leading by example
The UAE government needs little persuasion. There are now eight female ministers, constituting 27.5% of cabinet seats. Under the country’s constitution, women enjoy the same legal status, claim to titles, access to education, and right to practise professions as men. They are also guaranteed the same access to employment, health and family welfare facilities. Furthermore, in 2012 it was made compulsory to appoint at least one woman to the boards of public and private sector organisations – making the UAE the first country in the Arab region and the second country in the world to introduce a mandatory female presence in the boardroom.
Much can be traced to the example set by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the Emir of Dubai, who has long been a strong advocate of women’s advancement in the workforce.
This strong endorsement from the country’s leader sets an important tone but there are other factors at play. Positioning the country as a hub between east and west, the UAE’s leaders believe that an open and diverse approach will drive investment, help create jobs and sustain economic growth. Another important factor is the country’s small population. Leaders recognise the importance of fully utilising the entire pool of national talent, including a generation of young women who are well-educated and eager to find gainful employment.
While I can’t predict upcoming legislative activity, the recent creation of the Gender Balance Council also bodes well for the future. A new federal entity that aims to promote equality and opportunities for women in the workforce, it is a further indication that change, while often slow and laborious, is happening – at least from the ground up. But is this sufficient? Are these moves – welcome as they are – ensuring that enough women are breaking through into boardrooms as well?
Women leadership: moving on, moving up?
Unfortunately, the number of women making it through to senior executive roles in the private sector remains far too low. Only 1.5% of listed company board seats in the Gulf region are held by women. Long-held and mistaken preconceptions that women may be distracted by family obligations or might not want to travel are perhaps holding back more progress.
One would hope that the UAE’s commitment to gender diversity at the top level of government will be a source of inspiration but there are also some solid steps that can be taken to help make glass ceilings a thing of the past. For example, given that new directors are often appointed on the basis of recommendations by existing board members, they should not overlook women candidates in favour of male colleagues. Huge progress could be made by persuading just some company boards to look specifically at highly-qualified women candidates to fill vacant positions.
The UAE’s gender quota system has made an important start but more can be done across the region as a whole. Inspiration could perhaps be drawn from further afield, where more countries are also looking at gender quotas to bridge the boardroom gap. Germany, for instance, has made quotas mandatory and has tasked its companies to ensure that 30% of non-executive board seats are filled by women.
If they need further persuasion, then perhaps a gentle steer towards stories of successful women business leaders may help them see the light. A quick look through the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful Arab women is a vivid reminder that ours is a region replete with talent and vision, one where women are spearheading social, economic and business transformation.
Such stories should help remind women that they themselves have an important role to play. They need to be the change. Put your hand up – don’t hesitate to contribute and speak up in meetings, networks and elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious. On the contrary, women need to aim high – which is what men have been doing without hesitation for generations.
Doorway of opportunity
Empowering women in the UAE and across the region is more than just a soundbite. It’s actually a social and business imperative. Evidence abounds of how gender diversity on boards correlates to better financial performance – Fortune 500 companies with the greatest representation of women in management positions deliver returns to shareholders that are 34% higher than those of companies with the lowest representation, according to a report from Catalyst.
But real change is about more than just numbers on a balance sheet. Real change is when we who live and work in this region that we are lucky to call home can see visible progress with our own eyes. When we’re not surprised by women forming the majority of participants in a meeting. Or by a woman engineer fixing a jet engine. Or by a women entrepreneur achieving business success across borders.
Change is coming – there’s no doubt about that. But we need to pick up the pace. If we do so, my daughter – as well as my son – will have equal chance to step forward into a future laced with professional opportunity. A world where, if she chooses to follow in my footsteps, she will not be asked what it’s like to be a woman business leader in the Middle East.
- Character counts. Helping more young people into employment is a priority shared by policymakers the world over. But getting a job often comes down to the applicant’s character, explains BCG’s Leila Hoteit
- Delivering the ‘right’ diversity. While it can be easy to get swept up in the drive to increase the number of women in the workplace, Miki Tsusaka explains why quality trumps quantity every time
- Window on the workforce. To preserve and enhance the public impact of their organisations, government leaders must dramatically improve how they recruit, train and manage talent, says Agnès Audier
- Tapping the talent. Organisations from the public and private sector have long sought to attract the best and brightest – and Indonesia is no exception, says Edwin Utama. But more needs to be done to attract the best talent into government service
- Labour pains. A high-functioning workforce cannot be taken for granted, says Danny Werfel. He explains why a period of greater investment in skills and training will lead to stronger government performance in the US
- Millennials and the future of government. Many graduates might be tempted by a higher salary or perks from the private sector, but Virginia Hill, President of Young Government Leaders, says public service still holds substantial allure