Arab women in boardrooms – what gets in the way?

From politics to the boardroom, the participation of women in the region trails well below the international average.

Yara al-Wazir
Yara al-Wazir
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When it comes to female Arab leaders, the numbers are sparse. From politics to the boardroom, the participation of women trails well below the international average. In the gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries, a study by Hawkamah showed that women occupy a mere 1.5 percent of board seats across companies in the GCC, compared to the global average of 15.3 percent.

Keeping in mind the structure of private and public companies in the region, whereby many of them are family-run or family-started, one must raise the question: what is getting in the way of women entering leadership positions, and more importantly, what can be done to grow the region’s women and economy.

Recognizing the main factors that influence the way in which Arab women lead their lives, one must consider the impact of family, society, culture, politics, and economic mobility into the equation of creating a successful career.

Not surprisingly PwC’s Arab Women Leadership Outlook report showed that direct family members, namely a woman’s mother, father, and husband, have the greatest influence in career progression. Family members are at least 60 percent positive about the career progression of their daughters or wives.

Clearly, behind closed doors, women are being encouraged to progress and pursue their careers, however, once outside of their homes, they are negatively influenced by their community, their bosses, and by religious figures. A total of 42 percent cited that their own bosses had a negative influence on their career progression. The negative influence of the bosses is greater than that of any other influencers, including religious figures, siblings, children, or even the community.

Women have an excellent support system at home to aid their career progression – bosses and company executives need to recognize that and allow women to thrive

Yara al-Wazir

The issue of bosses getting in the way of career progression is an interesting one. Although more comprehensive research is not available on the root causes of this obstacle, one would imagine the thoughts going through the boss’s mind in the career-planning and development process of his employees. Geographic mobility, work and family-life balance, as well as educational background are factors that are taken into account.

Family members – who the same research says are generally positive about career progression among women – heavily influence these factors. Clearly, bosses are missing the point and assume how a woman’s family would react to events such as moving cities for her job or the ability to balance work and family life. Women have an excellent support system at home to aid their career progression – bosses and company executives need to recognize that and allow women to thrive.

Catching up

Structural legal reforms are required to encourage female participation in the economy, and specifically in the boardroom. Countries in the GCC offer localization policies to encourage companies to employ local citizens. There is no reason why the same type of policy can’t be introduced to encourage companies to offer women the chance they deserve, rather than living the land of assumptions.

The fact remains that although women play a prominent role in leading families, the region simply hasn’t experienced women in leadership positions outside of the family home. Therefore, the very concept is alien to companies, and without a direct incentive offered by the local government, the region won’t move as fast as it needs to.

Additionally, women’s leadership abilities must be targeted at early education levels. The same opportunities that young boys are encouraged to participate in, such as sports and networking opportunities, which help develop leadership qualities, must be offered and pushed for in young women.

Encouraging women to join the boardroom is not about giving women more power, rather about empowering the economy. On average, companies with the highest number of women board directors outperformed those with the lest by 53 percent on return on equity, 42 percent on return on sales, and 66 percent on return on capital investment, according to 2007 research sponsored by The Chubb corporation.

The opportunity cost associated with relying on an all-male board is far too high for the region to risk. If companies in the Arab world want to grow to be international global competitors, they need more women on board.
Yara al-Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

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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