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A Board’s-Eye View on Women in Leadership Positions in the United Arab Emirates

How well are women represented on boards of directors in the UAE? The short answer: not very well! However, the short answer belies key government strategies to increase the presence of women in the boardroom. In December 2012, the UAE announced a quota for women on the boards for state-owned companies and placed the issue center stage for corrective measures to ensue. The UAE’s announcement followed a growing trend of quotas for women on boards globally — beginning with Norway imposing a stringent 40 percent quota on women directors for listed companies in 2006. The UAE is therefore one of only a few nations that have taken important steps to close the gender gap at the highest echelons of corporate leadership.

Across the world, women account for 11 percent of corporate board seats in 2013. A modest 19.9 percent of women occupy S&P 500 board seats. The Dubai-based Hawkamah Institute of Corporate Governance (Hawkamah) reported that women in the GCC account for just 1.5 percent of corporate board seats. The UAE ranks 42nd globally in a list that ranks countries based on the presence of women members in boardrooms (with approximately 1.2 percent of women holding board positions in the UAE. As for the other GCC countries, Kuwait is ranked 35th, Oman 37th, Bahrain 40th, and Saudi Arabia 44th).

Empowering women into leadership: What companies can do

It is no longer news that increasing the number of women on boards of directors can positively impact company performance. More recently, however, the focus has also been on sustaining the pool of women general counsel to excel in board member positions through the adoption of policies and processes to promote both gender diversity and equal opportunity. With evidence that gender equity improves profitability, companies are being pushed to develop processes to retain top female talent and hence, “self-regulate.” This is a strong driver for many businesses to reach their target voluntarily, especially when governments are following suit to make such requirements mandatory by law.

With already a very limited pool of existing women directors, the demand for future women directors within the UAE will require a sustained “pipeline” of women ready to perform board roles in coming generations.

When we delve into why so few women are at the top echelons of leadership, we inevitably find that the talent pool is inherently lacking of women. We know that women graduate at the same rates as males from university, yet fewer women than men in the UAE formally enter the workforce. We know that somewhere in the middle of their career-trajectory, most women drop out of the workforce. Thus, when a company goes in search of candidates for board positions, there are far fewer women candidates to choose among. In order to have more women represented at the top, it is imperative to find solutions that keep women from dropping out of careers and concertedly removing the barriers to re-entry upon taking a career break.

Women in the Middle East have been breaking the mold — in a bold way — for generations, but their representation in the workforce is still exceedingly low. According to the International Monetary Fund, only 21 percent of women in the Middle East participate in the labor force. A number of systemic barriers make gender parity in the workforce a reality across the entire Middle East and North Africa. A worthwhile read providing an overview of the legislative context for examining women’s participation in the workforce in the region is a recent report published by Clifford Chance. The report is entitled Legal Rights Applicable to Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Women and Work.
In order to have more women represented at the top, it is imperative to find solutions that keep women from dropping out of careers and concertedly removing the barriers to re-entry upon taking a career break.
An important government-driven initiative launched by the Dubai Women Establishment (DWE) is a three-phase collaboration with the Hawkamah and Mudara Institute of Directors (Mudara IoD) to identify barriers that are restricting the participation of more women at senior executive levels; advocate changes to remove barriers; increase awareness on gender diversity in local and regional boardrooms; train women leaders in preparation for taking on board roles; and mentor the next generation of women leaders generally. With governmental and private sector company support, Hawkamah launched the Women Director’s Programme in 2015. Mudara also operates a Board Referral Service with a number of women candidates on the list.

It's essential to begin with an understanding of why women systematically fail to reach middle and senior management roles, let alone executive positions. According to a McKinsey study, different sectors have leaks and blockages in different parts of the employment pipeline. In the financial services industry, almost half of all employees are women in starting roles, but their representation shrinks by more than half at middle management level. A recent survey on the legal industry indicated that seven out of ten women report that leaving a job to provide full-time care to a dependent had a negative impact on their opportunities for advancement.

Quotas can serve to “kick start” a mindset change within companies. Having due regard for gender diversity can drive the assessment of candidates based on merit, and counteract the reality that few board selection committees are presented with female candidates.

Similarly, while having a diversity program in place is a good start, the implementation of such a program is key. It is not enough for top management to be enthusiastic about the program, senior and middle managers should be keen to ensure it works. When more companies follow suit, the data available on key factors that are limiting women from reaching higher positions becomes more robust. Also, the pool of “boardable” women to fill the pipeline becomes bigger. The best performing companies in terms of senior positions filled by women not only have larger number of initiatives in place, but also very high levels of management commitment. They also monitor and seek to address the mindset of both men and women to support gender diversity.
Quotas can serve to “kick start” a mindset change within companies.
Companies can now look to partner with organizations that are working to reintegrate women after taking a career break. The OnRamp Fellowship platform launched in 2014 now boasts over 30 of the world’s top law firms and legal departments with programs designed to reintegrate women lawyers returning to the workforce by refreshing skills, contacts, and experience to advance into leadership roles.

Forward thinking companies will introduce internal schemes to showcase leaders as positive role models; set up in-house mentoring and sponsorship schemes; develop flexible working and childcare support policies; give high priority to supporting and mentoring staff on career breaks and maternity leave; provide development opportunities for all tiers of the workforce through speaking engagements. In addition, they should combine internal schemes with external programs to offer apprenticeships and work experience to girls and young women; engage the next generation in schools and colleges with a particular focus on girls; influence greater diversity through existing business supply chains; encourage opportunities through engagement with (women) entrepreneurs; and provide opportunities to engage with women who have been out of the workforce for some years.

By developing and tracking best practices to retain female talent, not only are companies sustaining talent and enabling women to remain within the workforce, but also fostering a sustainable pool of women candidates for future board member positions. Such companies are at the vanguard of enabling better representation of women, whether voluntarily or by complying with government directives.

About the Author

Ghada Qaisi Audi is the general counsel of Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons LLC.

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