Social barriers remain for women reaching top positions in the Gulf

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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While Gulf women have made considerable progress during the last 20 years, their representation in corporate boards and executive management teams remains low. This is partially due to the role that casual socializing plays in securing these positions. Our societies need to develop alternative ways of ensuring that top female talent is given an opportunity to shine.

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In an ideal world, getting a job would be based on an objective reading of your qualifications, and there would be no role for prior social contact between the hirer and prospective employee. Such a system works for many normal jobs, such as sales assistant, taxi driver, or working on an assembly line, where the interview will be the first time the candidate meets those evaluating them.

However, when it comes to the highest echelons of the corporate world, personal connections play an important role. The circle of suitable candidates is usually small enough that people know one another prior to positions becoming available. Those who have a preexisting friendship with the employer possess a decisive advantage.

This is partially due to the power that these positions afford their holder, which creates a much larger need for trust than for a regular job. For example, if I hire someone to serve coffee, then I can specify what they should and shouldn’t do in detail quite easily, and even if they go off the rails, the amount of damage they can do before I realize and fire them is quite limited.

In contrast, if I hire a CEO, then their job is too complex to specify a detailed flowchart that they should adhere to, and so I need to trust them to exercise good judgement on the job. Moreover, if they decide to pursue their own interests, contrary to those of the organization, they can wreak massive havoc before I become aware and can intervene.

Accordingly, for a top corporate position, being on the chairperson’s radar, and being a trusted friend, are virtual prerequisites for being considered. In the Gulf, where socializing between men and women is extremely limited, this places women at a big disadvantage compared to men, given that the incumbents making the hiring decisions are invariably men.

This is most clearly seen in the Gulf institution of the majlis, or diwaniyya. These regular meeting places allow men to casually network, and these interactions can lay the foundation for a future appointment to a board or executive team. By being excluded from these gatherings, Gulf women enter the 100m employment race with a 10-second penalty, meaning that by the time they start running, the race has usually already been won by a man who has earned the chairperson’s trust through casual socializing.

Women should be afforded equal opportunities as a basic human right. Beyond moral considerations, it also makes economic sense, too: women represent half the talent available, and excluding such talent is akin to refusing to use one of your two hands. In many settings, women bring skills and perspectives that systematically differ from those of men, and so diversity unlocks the benefits of complementarity.

Therefore, both men and women in the Gulf should be looking to address the gender imbalance at the top of the corporate hierarchy. A Western onlooker may immediately respond that the solution is to undermine the traditional aversion to mixed-sex socialization, so that women and men have an equal chance of being friends with the incumbent chairperson.

However, such an approach is short-sighted for several reasons. First, the religious and cultural barriers to mixing between the sexes are part of the personal identity of people in the Gulf. Accordingly, there would be pushback to such a change, and if the change were successful, it might precipitate an identity crisis with severe unintended consequences. My guess is that many Gulf women would be averse to such a change, too.
Second, it represents a misdiagnosis of the underlying problem. Rather than creating equal opportunities for socialization, we should be decreasing the need for personal trust in these top positions. This can be done by improving the legal system, so that corporate principals are afforded better protections against wayward or corrupt executives.

There are other approaches, too, such as the quotas adopted by countries. In Norway, for example, women need to represent no less than 40 percent of the board. In professional American football, the “Rooney rule” has been established, whereby a minimum number of coaches from underrepresented minorities need to be interviewed before a hiring decision is made.

Critically, whatever intervention is chosen should be done in consultation with labor market researchers who can design systems to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of the method used. For example, the quota decision in Norway has led to the publication of many scientific papers evaluating its impact. These studies help both the Norwegian government and others refine their female empowerment policies in a manner that does not require wholesale changes in the prevailing cultural norms.

In the long-run, one of the biggest services that the Gulf governments can do to Gulf women is gathering and publishing data that allows for a scientific evaluation of policies regarding female employment. Only then will we see equal representation in corporate boards in the region.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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