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Huge strides for gender diversity in the UAE, but more is needed

In celebration of international women’s day, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said: “Most of my team are women.”

In 2012, Sheikh Mohammed made it mandatory to have female board members in all government agencies and companies.

Research conducted by the Pearl Initiative, an organization which promotes transparency and accountability for companies in the Gulf, reports that 32% of family-owned companies in the Gulf region have women on their boards, reports Harvard International.

In executive roles, the pattern repeats itself. Among successful examples of gender diversity at top levels, Maryam Bahlooq was appointed CEO of a subsidiary of the UAE’s largest bank, Emirates NBD, and Rania Nashar was named the CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Samba Financial Group earlier this year.

Related: Gender diversity: Makes a lot of business and sense

State of women employment

A 2018 study by Grant Thornton titled: ‘Women in leadership: beyond policy to progress’ provides a detailed account of what stands in the way of women from a gender disparity standpoint and the progress that is or needs to be made to bring balance to this equation.

Courtesy of : Grant Thornton 

“It is disappointing that in today’s fast-paced and evolving world we are still grappling with gender parity.

Change must take place, which requires action at all levels of an organization, irrespective of industry or country,” said Hisham Farouk CEO and Global Board Member Grant Thornton UAE.

Emirati women have represented the labor force for over 30 years, with a notable increase and impact in representation, from a mere 3.4% in the 70s to 66% of women presently holding public-sector roles, of which 30% are in decision-making roles, according to the report.

The UAE Government places emphasis on the importance of Emirati women in leadership with such initiatives as: The recently established ‘UAE Gender Balance Council’, whose main premise involves the development of policies which empower Emirati women.

Video: Every adult should learn from how kids react to gender disparity

In 2017, the Council published the Gender Balance Guide: Actions for UAE Organisations to help bring about meaningful organizational change.

The Guide provides a roadmap for organizations from the awareness building and acceptance stage, through to developing gender balance action plans and the successful implementation of gender impact assessments for policies and programmes.

Furthermore, the UAE has developed a gender balance index which is used as a central component of the national performance indicator.

Regulatory developments include lower barriers to entry and exit for entrepreneurs.

The Central Bank of the UAE has allocated quotas for Emirati employees across the banking sector, to encourage more women into finance leadership positions.

The UAE has embraced and supported both women in leadership positions and its youth into education, and this sentiment has recently been embraced across the wider region, with the recent movements in Saudi which saw women take to the driving wheel for the first time in its history, along with setting up their own businesses.

Read: Bridging the gender gap in the GCC is closer than you think

An additional $1trn dollars of output could have been gained across the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan region (equivalent to doubling average real GDP growth during the past decade) had female workforce participation rates been raised between 2000 and 2011, according to the report.

“Embracing a culture of diversity is essential for the success of an organization. It allows them to tap into unconventional opportunities that arise when diverse skills and ideas are brought together,” said Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive Vice President FinTech Hive at DIFC.

“Fewer women in top management results in fewer women on boards. If companies are serious about gender diversity, they must create effective and impactful policies which support women to climb up the corporate ladder.” Ashraf Gamal El-Din CEO, Hawkamah.

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The UAE case

The report looks at the UAE and says it is encouraging to witness that a higher number of women are graduating from university than men, with 71% of all graduates being Emirati women, which provides for a vigorous pipeline of qualified female students who are primed to contribute to a diverse workforce.

Whilst the public-sector in the UAE employs 1,500 Emirati women in Dubai Police and represent 27% of the UAE Cabinet, there is a need to consider the ongoing steer towards a more tech-enabled smart government, which going forward will provide limited roles for local talent.

This presents an opportunity for the private sector to embrace the youth, along with women in managerial and senior positions, particularly given only 5.5% of private sector institutes have women in senior positions.

UAE Public sector institutes expressed an ambition to become one of the top 25 countries for gender equality by 2021.

“‘Women who empower, empower women who empower’ I find this quote powerful and hence express gratitude to those women around the world who through their commitment have displayed ferocious and empowering attributes. The time has come for leaders to create a culture where women can thrive. We are responsible for the next generation of leaders and innovators where women all around the world are afforded equal opportunity to conquer the future.” Nisha Jagtiani, Director, Landmark Group.

Read: Arab News to become first Saudi ‘gender-balanced’ newspaper by 2020 

Solution ideas 

Time for quotas:

Sara Khoja, Partner at Clyde & Co. shares her views on the quota debate and says, “the imposition of quotas can be a brave step and with research indicating that, for example, it will take 100-plus years for gender pay parity to be achieved, quotas might be the only way to really achieve change. Some may say it provides for a ‘token’ female appointment, but I believe it means that companies are forced to change and recruit from the many capable women we know are available but who may not be in the ‘right’ network or come from the ‘right’ background.”

A 2015 Commonwealth report stated that “the range of studies and analysis lead to the conclusion that fairness will not prevail for women in the short term without legislation for targets and/ or quotas.”

Grant Thornton’s own research has shown that 47% of businesses support the introduction of quotas, at least for the executive boards of large listed companies.

Read: Which GCC country is closing the Middle East gender gap?

Recruitment and retention tactics:

Recruitment and retention are strategic priorities for businesses, and gender equality in leadership has become a core element of employer branding. A

Stephanie HasenbosCase, Global Leader of People and Culture at Grant Thornton International, explains, “businesses now have to demonstrate that they care about their people and be open about the benefits on offer in order to be attractive as an employer”.

But businesses are also looking at gender diversity as a competitive differentiator.

Sacha Romanovitch says that “business leaders are starting to recognize that unless they can present a diverse team to prospective clients, they are limited in their ability to win work. So, gender diversity policies are driven by wanting to recruit employees, but also wanting to recruit clients.”

There is a wealth of research investigating the commercial impact of women in leadership. For instance, research has found that narrowing the global gender gap could grow global GDP by as much as $12 trillion by 2025.

In the MENA region, this would result in an additional 50% increase in GDP by 2025.