Opinion: The battle for female employment lies in the boardroom

Written by
Karam Filfilan

25 Oct 2017

25 Oct 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

Talking to a senior female HR manager in Saudi Arabia recently, I was struck by her thoughts on the challenges facing women in the workplace. After more than 10 years in the industry, she told me that the problems facing working women in the Middle East are evolving.

“The challenges women face now are not the same as when I started. Women can now get jobs in pretty much all departments. The question now is all about what happens with the glass ceiling. Are we giving women at middle management enough support to make that leap to the next level?”

We all know that mobilising more women into work is key to diversifying Middle Eastern economies away from a dependence on oil. In Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030 aims to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%. In the UAE, 32% of women are active in the labour market, with plans to increase this number. Where women are under-represented in both economies is in leadership positions, where they can influence the debate. 

This is starkly illustrated in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 global gender parity index. When it comes to ranking countries by economic participation and opportunity, 15 of the 20 lowest ranking countries come from the Middle East and North Africa. On pay equality, Middle Eastern countries form the six least equal countries for income averaging US$12,736 or more. There is clearly still a way to go. 

However, in recent months we have seen GCC countries stepping up. In the UAE, 20% of applicants to a company’s board seats must be female, with organisations obliged to disclose the rate of female representation on boards and outline why female board applicants were unsuccessful. 

While this shift will take time to filter through to the c-suite, it is encouraging to see a recent number of high-profile roles taken by women, such as Maryam Bahlooq, who became Emirates NBD’s first female Emirati CEO at shared services organisation Tanfeeth. 

Elsewhere, Rania Nashar made waves in the worldwide banking industry back in July, when she became CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Samba Financial Group. Nashar’s rise to prominence is no smokescreen. Her ascension to chief executive is the result of 20 years of hard graft at the financial institute, from dealing with the Millennium bug (remember that?) and early mergers with United Saudi Bank, to guiding Samba through the current changes in Saudi Arabia’s economy. Now, she oversees the Kingdom’s third largest bank with assets in excess of $61 billion. Her appointment is clearly down to her ability, experience and knowledge of her industry. It is not tokenism or opportunism, it’s about what is best for the business, regardless of gender. 

In the same month as Nashar’s appointment, Sarah Al-Suhaimi was selected as chair of the board at Tadawul (Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange) and Latifa Al-Sabhan became CFO at Arab National Bank. So is real change happening in the Middle East when it comes to female leadership? Has the glass ceiling been broken?

The answer, as ever, is more complex than a simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 

While these breakthrough appointments clearly demonstrate a commitment in the Gulf to pushing female leaders to executive level, more needs to be done to encourage women in middle management roles to believe they can reach the very top – and to see the route there. 

This can be done through mentorship, role modelling from the top and active support in the workplace. It is vital that successful leaders make themselves available to mentor those in middle management with the ambition to develop. Think of Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi in the UAE, who as the first woman to hold a ministerial post in the UAE, uses her platform to encourage female participation in the all sectors of the workforce. Think of organisations like the 30% Club GCC, which brings together female leaders from all business sectors to mentor, share experiences and provide a network of like-minded people. Finally, think of truly embracing flexible working, shared care-work by both men and women and training for all to develop the next generation of female leaders. 

After all, the economic and social benefits will be huge. As McKinsey Global Institute reported back in 2015 – gender equality in the workplace would leave our economies US$2.7trillion better off by 2025. So are you doing enough to encourage the women in your organisation to progress to the next level?