Companies, government bodies, and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East have witnessed women rising to senior leadership positions over the last two decades. Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi set precedence by becoming the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position in UAE's history. Lubna Olayan also broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to deliver a keynote address in Saudi Arabia, with a strong speech at the Jeddah Economic Forum. In Kuwait, Sarah Akbar led the way by becoming the first female to head a GCC-based oil and gas company, when she took the helm at Kuwait Energy Co.
Dr. Maliha Hashmi, the Executive Director for the Health & Wellbeing Sector at NEOM, is a Harvard Law School and MIT graduate and has advocated women empowerment in the GCC region. Maliha Hashmi shared her viewpoints on women in leadership, current boardrooms, education systems and what's next for women in the GCC business sphere.
"Women in the GCC region are more visible today than ever before! It’s a very very exciting time to be working as a woman in this region. Over the last 18 years, women in GCC were subject to four waves. The first wave of transition focused on education; the second wave focused on inclusion in the public sector; the third wave revolved around empowerment and social rights; the fourth wave focused on sectors involvements and top jobs in the government," Maliha Hashmi said.
Women empowerment in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has taken a giant step forward in empowering its women. While the world knows and talks about women drivers on Saudi roads, there's more to this socio-economic and cultural change than meets the eye. Saudi women have also taken up roles in the banking and financial sectors, as well as within market regulators. Saudi has announced its first female ambassador in the U.S. and has also opened up its legal sectors, with the number of lawyers steadily increasing in the country.
"The next wave should focus on women taking leading roles in C-suite positions and companies’ boards of directors. More high-tech startups should be owned by women. More female diplomats are needed in GCC, I am super excited this has started in Saudi Arabia with Princess Reema as the first Saudi female ambassador. I am also proud and honored to represent NEOM as one of its female executives, I hope this passion within me for this amazing project is contagious and is an encouragement for other young women to join and I can serve as a great role model for them," Maliha Hashmi said.
Maliha Hashmi serves as the Executive Director for the Health & Wellbeing Sector at NEOM. The health sector is also a big employer for women in Saudi Arabia.
"The Health and Wellbeing sector in NEOM can provide Women with endless opportunities from AI health solutions to developing world-class preventative health system. As a female Executive Director in NEOM, we hope to develop great proactive health programs that will increase the social mental and physical wellbeing of women to live healthier happier and longer lives while leading major roles in the community," Maliha Hashmi added.
Boardrooms and education – what's next?
Data released by the GCC Board Directors Institute (BDI) in the McKinsey Quarterly report shows that women hold less than 1 percent of executive-committee and board positions in the GCC — figures that are among the lowest in the world.
"More women are needed on boards and in education," Maliha Hashmi said. "Education systems also should focus more on digital learning and digital discipline. This brings the world closer, even in the classroom. The number of female colleges also need to be increased, especially in the area of medicine. As part of NEOM’s Health & Wellbeing Executive team, we hope to get more women to join work as physicians and health professionals in the healthcare provisions that we create and in the wellness resorts we develop."
"So far the focus was on employing more women in the government. The time has now to create more enablers to unleash creativity and innovation," Maliha Hashmi added.
Women have made progress and they can make more. Currently, there are many opportunities for women in the region to develop skills to lead with impact and achieve high performance. The Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK) has launched an initiative to train women leaders in 8 areas e Qiyadat (Female Leadership). The program’s purpose is to uncover leadership skills in girls, build these skills and empower them to activate their positive and influential presence in the establishments and organizations where they work. There are other leadership programs for women underway, as well.