Women in business: there’s work to be done

Business in the Emirates

All of the regional countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report fall in the bottom third of the index, which measures 145 states according to factors like women’s economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment, writes Ben Flanagan.

In the Arab world as a whole, women represent just 22.3 percent of the total labour force, compared to the global average of 39.6 percent. This number falls to 13-14 percent in countries like the UAE, Oman and Qatar.

That is despite numerous surveys showing that women in the region both want to work, and are eager to take up more senior positions.

According to the Pearl Initiative’s ‘Women’s Careers in the GCC: The CEO Agenda’, more than half the women surveyed said they are aiming at senior or board-level positions. But a worrying eight in ten said they felt that simply being a woman put them at a disadvantage in the workplace.

These are not, of course, issues confined to one country or region. ‘Women in the Workplace 2016’, a study published in September 2016 that centres on corporate America, certainly paints a worrying picture about the state of gender equality in US workplaces. The study – by consultancy McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, the non-profit organisation founded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg – found that, in corporate America, women “fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step”.

The ‘Women in the Workplace 2016’ report found that there is a gender imbalance on every single rung of the career ladder. Women represent 46 percent of employees in entry level positions, and that number falls the higher up the career ladder you go, standing at just 19 percent at the ‘C-suite’ level.

The report also found that promotion rates for women in corporate America lag behind those of men, with the disparity largest at the first step up to ‘manager’ level, where for every 100 women promoted, 130 men are promoted. ‘Women of colour’, as defined by the study, were found to be the most underrepresented group in the corporate pipeline, lagging behind white men, men of colour, and white women. Even though they make up 20 percent of the US population, women of colour hold a mere 3 percent of C-suite positions, despite having higher aspirations for becoming a top executive than white women, according to the study.

Yet more negative findings centre on the number of interactions women in corporate America have with senior leaders in a business. The ‘Women in the Workplace 2016’ report found that 51 percent of women in senior management reported that they interact with a company leader at least once a week, compared to 62 percent of men.

Gender inequality in business is clearly a global issue. But the situation can seem especially bleak in the Arab world, even in progressive societies and thriving business hubs like the UAE.

Figures show that less than less than 2 percent of board seats in UAE-listed companies are held by women – despite rules outlined by the Securities and Commodities Authority that 20 percent of the candidates for a company’s board seats should be women.

That compares to the 16 percent global average of board seats being held by women, rising to the 26 percent of board seats held by women in FTSE100 firms in the United Kingdom.

And that tally is even higher in Norway, which in 2003 famously introduced a compulsory 40 percent quota for the minimum number of women on the board of listed companies.

But such quotas divide opinion, with some saying that they encourage ‘token’ appointments, while others pointing out that such schemes do not always have a positive impact at the executive level.

According a survey released earlier this year by the Australian business consultancy Derwent Scotch, 36 percent of 74 female chief executives at leading international companies said that they do not support “gender diversity mandates”, such as Norway-style quotas.

But some UAE experts say such quotas are the only way to address the gender balance in business.

This is the stance of Ashraf Gamal El Din, the chief executive of the Dubai-based Hawkamah, the Institute for Corporate Governance.

“Experience shows that there is a glass ceiling that is not to be broken except by having quotas,” he told Benchmark.

“Numbers show that countries that used quotas… are the ones that have better representation of women on their boards. But one needs to make sure that boosting the presence of women on boards does not become a box-ticking exercise.

“What we want is qualified women who make the business case for women on boards even stronger.”

There are certainly some positive strides being made in this regard.

Numerous women’s business groups are active in the UAE, including the International Business Women’s Group, Dubai Business Women Council, and Abu Dhabi Business Women Council. And last year a GCC chapter of The 30% Club, which aims to increase the number of women serving on company boards, launched here.

And there have also been several government initiatives in the UAE to boost the participation of women in business. In late 2012, the UAE Cabinet made it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors.

And a government shake-up announced in February saw several new UAE ministerial positions for women. Six of the nine new appointments were women, including Ohood Al Roumi, who was named Minister of State for Happiness, and Shamma Al Mazrui, who already has a masters’ degree from the University of Oxford, and who was appointed Minister of Youth Affairs. Other appointments included Noura Al Kaabi as Minister of State for FNC Affairs and Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi as Minister of State for Tolerance.

And with such leadership in place it is perhaps only a matter of time before the proportion of women versus men in the workplace edges towards those all-important digits: 50-50.