Why the Middle East needs to champion female leaders

Written by
Shaheena Jivraj

20 Jun 2017

20 Jun 2017 • by Shaheena Jivraj

The case for increasing the number of women in leadership, and more specifically women on boards of listed companies and women in c-suite position is stronger now than ever before. The growing body of evidence consistently shows companies with strong gender diversity in their leadership outperform their male only counterparts, with the uplift estimated to be as significant as 15% according to research by McKinsey. 

Despite the financial benefits, the presence of women in leadership in the region is still low. According to the World Bank the overall presence of women in the workforce in the GCC is 32%, lower than Europe (51%), Latin America (54%) and East Asia and Pacific (61%). A large proportion of the figure for the GCC comprises of the expat population along with the indigenous community. Across the region there are legal, social and cultural challenges that impede the development of strong pipeline of talented women to take on leadership roles, however, in line with global trends the region is seeing increased attention on the gender and leadership debate. 

Champions in female success stories

One of the biggest challenges in this arena is the resources available to identify, nurture and promote talented females. You may have heard it said that ‘women are over mentored but under-sponsored’ in the workplace. We wanted to understand if there were any similarities on the journey to success for powerful women, and as a team of evidence based practitioners and academics, what better way than to conduct a study in this area? We interviewed 60 women across 50 countries and found that the one unifying factor in their leadership journeys was the presence of a champion. From former Prime Ministers to CEOs, directors and family business owners, almost without exception, across cultures and languages all spoke of being championed at some point in their lives.

We were blown away by this amazing congruence – and we started to explore what was going on. What we found was profound. Women who had reached the top or very near the top, had developed self belief and confidence as a result of a respected figure seeing their potential and believing in them.


Who are the best female champions?

As you would expect, in their early years it was often a parent or teacher. But more significantly, during the first stages of their career, or later at the beginning of a new role, that individual was a line manager or more senior leader. This was not a transactional relationship that so often characterises sponsorship, the ‘I will do something for you and you will do something for me in return’. These champions demonstrated a genuine interest in nurturing talent and demonstrating genuine care for the wellbeing of these women.

Championship is different. We define it as: proactive support and advocacy that advances a woman’s leadership aspirations with care for them as a person. From our research it is a behaviour that enables women to flourish in various cultural contexts and different organisations.

Why championing works so well for women

As a way to understand this process, we have developed the CHAMP model presented in our latest publication, Championing Women Leaders, Beyond Sponsorship. We discuss the championing journey for both the Champions, the women on their way up – referred to as ‘Ones to Watch’ –  and their organisations.

  1. For championship to succeed it needs an organisational culture where relationships between senior managers and more junior staff can be transparent. 
  2. Women tend to be more mindful of their social environment than men and hesitant. This means they pay more attention to what others think about them and thus more likely to hesitate in promoting themselves. The impact of someone who believes in their talent and potential, without expecting any return, is very significant. 
  3. The value of a champion lies in their ability to advocate talented ‘ones to watch’. The impact of this has been found to level the ‘playing field’, so when women reached the point of being considered for senior posts their experience matched that of men in terms of the challenging roles they have successfully fulfilled.
  4. Championing boosts motivation. The champion brings their experience, influence and networks. At the same time the ‘one to watch’ takes a proactive approach to developing their career by being more motivated. 
  5. The overall effect of championing is power. Increasing the critical mass of really talented women into positions of power means the organisation benefits, the pipeline benefits from senior female role models, and the champions benefit from demonstrating robust succession plans. There is a great multiplier effect promoting diverse talent that underpins strong performance.


How can you become a champion?

When working with organisations to implement a championing framework the motivation has to come from executive or senior management. If individuals at this level, take on a firm commitment to identify talent amongst the ‘ones to watch’ at middle management, they can create a cascade where middle managers adopt a similar approach with younger, new entrants, and so a cycle begins. 

Women are less likely to overtly push themselves forward to attract champions. The relationship tends to flourish where champions are committed to seeking out talent through recommendations and a genuine desire to identify and nurture talented individuals. This, combined with the ‘one to watch’ demonstrating potential of their talent through their work, being encouraged to be open about their ambitions, creates the environment to nurture championing. If you expect someone to advocate for you, trust is essential. 

For women in particular, trust and personal connections are tightly entwined. Champions must be clear about the value of their role. They are senior leaders who, having amassed a great deal of experience, want to see the best possible talent thrive. They also have a genuine interest in getting to know new talent in their organisations. For champions, this relationship creates the opportunity to leave their legacy in building a pipeline of talent that is not moulded in their likeness, but diverse and powerful.