“Twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive. No country has achieved gender equality, and the COVID-19 crisis threatens to erode the limited gains that have been made. The Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to recover better from the pandemic offer a chance to transform the lives of women and girls, today and tomorrow.”1 (Secretary-General António Guterres, United Nations)
At the current rate of progress, the 2021 report from the World Economic Forum2 estimates that, globally, it will take:
- 6 years to close the gender gap worldwide
- 5 years to attain gender parity in politics
- 6 years to close the economic participation gap
- Gender gaps in educational attainment and health and survival are nearly closed
The UAE ranked 72 out of 156 countries globally in The Global Gender Gap Index 2021 rankings by WEF. In the results by subindex, the UAE ranked:
- 135 out of 156 in Economic Participation and Opportunity
- 89 out of 156 in Educational Attainment
- 130 out of 156 in Health and Survival
- 24 out of 156 in Political Empowerment
In terms of academics, in the Gulf, girls outperform boys. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Oman, girls consistently perform better in mathematics than boys, and between 30-60 percent of STEM graduates are women. Despite these figures, 13 out of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in employment are in the MENA region. This shows us that education isn’t the only ingredient to gender equity. For workplace gender equity other factors have to be taken into account (ie social, mentoring, sponsorship etc).3
The socio-economic environment of many patriarchal societies reinforce pre-existing gender roles. This can be challenging for the private sector in hiring women due maternity pay and time off, legal restrictions, marriage status and gender norms.4 Although there have been significant improvements regarding the perception of women in places such as the UAE, it is estimated that it will still take over 100 years for there to be complete gender parity.5
Globally, the underrepresentation of women in management positions is even more visible at the higher levels of decision-making. Forty-Eight percent (48%) of companies surveyed by the International Labour
Organization (ILO) in 2018 had at least one woman in senior management, but only 31% had women in top executive positions. Women CEOs or top managers are even more scarce: only 18% of enterprises surveyed by the World Bank had a woman CEO.6
Among Fortune 500 corporations, women accounted for only 7.4% or 37 out of 500 CEOs. Despite the minor improvement from 1998, when only 1 out of the top 500 corporations had a female CEO, the gender gap at the level of top corporate decision-makers remains significant.7
More women are employed in junior management than in senior and middle management positions, and the glass ceiling is more difficult to break through at the top echelons of management;8 and women are better represented in support management functions than in more strategic managerial posts.9
The Women in Business Committee of Capital Club Dubai has been actively influencing the narrative in the private sector in the region and has deep insights into the progress made, as well pain points still to be resolved. They recognize that many organizations and business leaders have been working passionately towards creating a better ecosystem and framework for women leadership in the private sector. So, it was time to share notes, learn from each other, celebrate progress, and bring collaborative recommendations to inform policy, influence better decisions, and together help accelerate transformation.
The first Roundtable was attended by diverse organizations and business leaders in the country that are working towards the gender balance vision to enhance the female voice in the private sector. It aimed to facilitate free-flowing conversations where everyone could share the various challenges and potential solutions they have experienced. Moderated by the Women in Business committee, the discussions took place under the trust of Chatham House Rule, with no names of people or organizations shared.
Capital Club Dubai believes that gender parity is a social and moral imperative and has significant economic implications. It is well-established that gender and otherwise diverse companies outperform their peers, yet the corporate career pipeline for women is leaky. The mandate of one woman on the board of directors is a step in the right direction; much more is required for boards to be truly inclusive and diverse.
Lack of women in leadership positions: Women in leadership is good for business is reported by lots of research worldwide, yet there are many challenges to manifesting the findings. “Study after study finds that companies with more women in leadership roles reap a competitive advantage; companies with gender diversity are 45% more likely to report improved market share as compared to the previous year. Having more women in leadership roles is good for society, too. According to the World Economic Forum, countries with greater female representation are more prosperous and competitive.”10 Furthermore, this challenge also contributes towards finding fewer women throughout the organization. There is evidence that having more women in board-level positions improves non-board gender balance.11 The culture of a company is negatively impacted due to a lack of awareness and empathy for women-related issues, and this is evident even where there are male allies who may be advocates.
There is a need to reverse attrition rates and find real solutions to the leaky pipeline in the mid and senior- level professionals. Another concern discussed was that women were not very good at promoting or marketing themselves, which can be one of the stumbling blocks in their progress. A Bloomberg study12 of 30,000 men and women in the management pipeline found that though most women rated great on performance, they rated very poorly on their’ potential parameters’, indicating the need for women to develop skills to ‘sell themselves’ better.
Boardroom diversity: Studies and experience point towards a minimum of three women in the boardroom, for there to be a real impact of diversity and not just tokensim.13 However, there is a false narrative typically heard in most industries that there aren’t enough qualified ‘board-ready’ women. For example, when an executive search firm cannot find senior women with the expertise required to fill a board seat, it isn’t because there aren’t qualified candidates but often because the leadership is not looking in the right places or isn’t motivated enough to bring more women on board. The challenge is more nuanced and subtle – it is about changing the demand perception and making sure that the Chairs, CEOs and other board members understand that they need women on their boards. The supply is there, but women often have to be ten times more prepared than men to be considered ‘board ready’.
Supply vs. Demand: Are the ‘seekers’ actively looking at women’s networks or having conversations with other women leaders with connections that could bring in the talent pool? It does take time and effort but can be done. It is also worth noting that if the interviewing panel is not diverse, it can affect the resulting hiring choices. These controls are at senior management level.
Unconscious bias: There is a continued lack of awareness and ignorance about different biases and how to deal with them. What are the tools and training available to help alleviate both the conscious and the unconscious biases? Sometimes well-meaning but not well-thought-out words or expressions can exacerbate the bias problem. One suggestion to deal with this is to simply call it out, in a non-offensive manner, with a direct question such as ‘what do you mean by that?’. It gives the other person an opportunity to reflect, be more self-aware, and then change their thinking.
Behaviour bias: There is an assumption that women need to change the way they behave to be accepted by men in leadership positions. However, maybe it is the company’s culture that needs to change so that it is more able to embrace women’s communication and leadership styles outside the traditional stereotypes.
Changing the Narrative: Men and women need to talk about finding solutions together. The challenges of gender equity in the private sector impact the entire ecosystem, and solutions need to be built around trust. Women are needed in senior leadership roles, so that they can bring change throughout the organisaion from their position of authority.
Open honest conversations: It is considered important to create an atmosphere that allows people to talk about their pain points. Lots of corporates express their frustration at not being very successful in brining more women in leadership positions, even after trying and testing different strategies. Often the women in the organization need to talk and be advocates for each other.
Women in Tech: Many women find themselves stuck in the same position and unable to be promoted, calling for a systemic change in tech companies, which is still very much a ‘boys club’. In the big tech companies, across many geographies, women are faced with the expectation that they need to change who they are, to ‘fit in’ or get promoted. There is a slow realization for the need of more female role models and also that the company culture and structure needs to change.
Culture: There is an urgent need to reform culture, both in the professional world and in society, regarding the stereotypical expectations for women’s roles and responsibilities. However, this is one of the most difficult aspects in society to shift. OECD Report on “Change is not always easy, and it takes time for fundamental attitudes to shift in response to changing realities.”14
It starts with awareness at the top, which needs to trickle down to the rest of the organization to create an inclusive culture that brings both men and women together at the table. There is also a need for policies to be enforced to bring impact beyond senior management. Additionally, the organizational structure needs to enable the mid to senior-level women to rise to the C-suite leadership level and all blocks to be realized and removed. Finally, though there is sufficient data that proves the benefits of diversity on performance and innovation. The question is that though companies hire D&I officers, are they really empowered to get the job done?
Consolidated Strategy: Investments and data need to push the superficial changes into long-term strategic goals. Unfortunately, the drive for inclusion is not being led by the Business or commercial heads. Instead, it is often a council or committee reporting to the CEO and/or a support function. The leadership sees D&I more from a perspective of increased cost rather a strategic investment that positively impact their bottom line in the long run. The experience from ground zero in many companies is that even after months and years of company policies, procedures and programmes in place for gender equity, a paradigm shift is still lacking and real change has still to manifest. And the answers are not easy to find or apply. Clearly, one of the conclusions of this roundtable was that more detailed discussions are needed on this topic.
Mentors, Champions, Sponsors: It is imperative for women champions to ‘walk the talk’, beyond D&I presentations and plans. Many women have testified that their success in rising to leadership position is due to the help of senior mentors and role models. More women need to take the stage and inspire how they overcame biases and blocks through resilience and perseverance, and prove it can be done, and help
others. Besides mentors, junior women need sponsors within the company to help them promote to senior positions. For example, one company brings in VPs from different locations to support selected women as part of their talent review. One inspiring message from women leaders is to “lift as you climb” and amplify the voice of other women in meetings and the organization as a whole.
Lack of training: Investments in women’s professional development are low and need to be actively changed. Training is paramount, and goals need to be explicit. All managers, at every level, must have a D&I objective, performance assessments and get trained on changing behavioral biases. This can be linked to competition and how well you’re rated at the end of the year.
Measurements & Metrics: Without KPIs and measurements, change will be difficult to ascertain and maintain. Every manager in a company should have D&I objectives and metrics shared so that everybody in the organization can see the changes. One good example shared was about a company where all the managers were being assessed on inclusive policies and practices by those reporting three levels below them. Each manager knew their KPIs and that the peer assessment would impact his or her career progression. These kinds of systemic checks and controls are significant and have impact.
Another thought was that the lens through which performance and metrics are viewed needed to change. For example, instead of only reviewing the number of contracts or revenue generated, customer relationships needed to be considered because this brings in more critical longer-term perspectives. Many asked about the relevant metrics that can be used in the Middles East to measure the success of employing more women in the workforce. Further discussions needed.
Future of Work: Post pandemic experience and research reveal that more companies are creating hybrid work models. This would be especially beneficial for women, especially during their biological peak time and then returning to career progression without giving up on anything. Corporates recognize the need to acquire and retain talent and create solutions that are different from the past. A yet to be better recognized is high value of women returning to the workforce and part-time women workers. Furthermore, there is a need to look at alternative career models and build training programmes around these. More employees are purpose-driven and want to be part of companies that match their values, not necessarily the traditional nine to five jobs. Instead, they might want to jump into a project, travel, and return to new work. Surveys have found that employees value their time more than titles and salaries. Are CEOs and organizations ready for the next generation workforce?
Regulations: Do corporates require more assistance from government regulation to facilitate the ease of bringing more women into the workforce? Is the leaky pipeline problem an infrastructure issue? And what are the opportunities? The evolving regulations and new labour law nudges the private sector to consider more flexibility and equity in gender pay. Yet, there continues to be a challenge for women who have taken time off the career ladder to raise children and then return back to work. Jobs and visas are difficult to acquire. Is there a market for women who may not want to return full-time? Can the government ease the access to maternity cover, guidance, training and support system?
Social Infrastructure Support: The expat workforce in the UAE has a real challenge in finding support, such as extended family, reliable domestic help, and creches within companies, to help look after young children as the women try to return to work. There are visa and health insurance blocks for older grandparents who would like to help, as citizens in all countries take for granted. What kind of solutions can the HR infrastructure within corporations implement when employees become parents? And how can the government frame policy to bring maturity into the market to evolve into enabling and using all talent in the country?
Boys club: There was a consensus that men dominate corporate leadership, and women have to work harder, sacrifice much more, and yet their male counterparts are promoted quicker and paid more. Change is too slow.
In a ground-breaking move, last year Zurich Insurance Group became the first company in the UK to advertise all vacancies with the option of part-time, full-time, job share or flexible working. Coupled with gender-neutral language in every job advertisement, this has generated significant change. Zurich has seen a 16% rise in women applying for jobs and a near 20% jump in female applications for management roles. Besides the increased applications, the number of women hired for senior positions directly from the initiative leaped by 33%.15
Several studies have shown that a higher proportion of women in decision-making roles in the private sector positively boosted stock market returns and created corporate profitability.16 A global survey of enterprises conducted by ILO in 2018 reaffirmed that company profits increase as a result of gender diversity and equality initiatives. Nevertheless, the proportion of women in managerial positions remains low in both the public and private sectors, and the number of women diminishes as you move up the corporate ladder towards the top executive positions.17
This introductory roundtable highlighted the need for many more discussions around specific challenges. The Women in Business committee of Capital Club will hold further roundtables to target these more in- depth discussions with the aim to find solutions and recommendations for corporates and government.