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Why does the Gulf lack female leaders? Data has the answers

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

In the Middle East, women are heavily underrepresented in leadership positions. Women account for less than 10 percent of parliamentary seats in several Gulf states, and Kuwait’s 2020 elections resulted in all 50 seats going to men. The private sector paints an even grimmer picture: only three of the 83 Gulf firms listed in the Forbes Top 100 Arab Family Businesses had a female chairperson.

Underlying this imbalance is a chronic lack of scientific data on its causes. If the Gulf countries are serious about supporting female leadership, they must remedy this deficiency.

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The easiest way of trying to correct gender imbalance is to simply affirm that there is rampant discrimination, and to demand greater representation for women.

A more difficult – but potentially more productive – approach is to use scientific methods to infer the reasons for the underrepresentation of women. This is because policies that seek to empower women vary in cost and effectiveness, and selecting the best mix requires a refined understanding of the underlying causes of female underrepresentation.

For example, women might be underrepresented as senior executives because they are discriminated against at the selection phase despite having the same years of managerial experience as men; or it could be because they are less likely than men to have the requisite years of managerial experience. In the former case, government-mandated affirmative action is likely to be effective in reversing discrimination.

In contrast, in the latter case, affirmative action could be counterproductive as it might lead to companies being forced to appoint underqualified women, reinforcing prevailing stereotypes. Under these circumstances, the more effective policy would address why women are less likely to have the requisite managerial experience – for example they might be discriminated against at lower levels, in educational institutions, or by the legal system. Rectifying that might lead to women organically securing equal representation at the senior executive level without the need for affirmative action.

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In Western countries, there is a large body of scientific work on why women are underrepresented in leadership positions. Economists have contributed by demonstrating that, in addition to being discriminated against, women are more likely than men to be risk averse, to be reluctant to start negotiations, to avoid competitive environments, to seek jobs with flexible working hours, and to spend time on low promotability tasks.

However, our understanding is far from complete, as illustrated in a new research paper by Alleghany College economist Professor Priyanka Chakraborty and Texas A&M University economist Professor Danila Serra. They used a series of experiments to study interactions between managers and subordinates when managers had to decide which employees to promote.

Professors Chakraborty and Serra found that women were less likely to seek managerial positions than men in situations where subordinates could express their anger at being overlooked for a promotion by the manger. Moreover, they found that female managers were more likely than their male counterparts to receive angry messages from subordinates, and that these subordinates were more likely to question the decisions of female managers than those of male managers. Within the confines of the experiment, however, they detected no overall gender difference in managerial performance, though male and female managers chose to communicate promotion decisions to their subordinates using different language, with women systematically preferring more cordial expressions.

Since this is cutting-edge research that isn’t being applied to a narrow problem, it is too early to determine the paper’s implications for broader issues of gender imbalances in leadership positions. However, it opens the door for important follow-up research into why women are treated less fairly by subordinates who are overlooked for promotion, and what role this might play in making it harder for women to climb corporate ladders.

In the Gulf countries, unfortunately, the volume of research on these issues is very limited, despite the arguably more pressing need for it be conducted. Gross expenditure on research is considerably lower, and funding for research on women’s issues available from civil society organizations is modest because these entities themselves are limited in size. In contrast, in countries like the US, private non-profit organizations that have sizeable endowments offer grants for the study of a wide range of women’s issues.

While Gulf-based policymakers can certainly make use of the research conducted by Western-based researchers such as Professors Chakraborty and Serra, there are many legal and cultural differences between Western and Gulf countries, meaning that there is no substitute for research conducted by Gulf-based scholars on populations in the Gulf. For example, in the context of the above study, organizations tend to be much more hierarchical in the Gulf, meaning that there are fewer opportunities for subordinates to express their dissatisfaction with a manager’s decision, and so this may affect the attractiveness of managerial positions to women.

Fortunately, encouraging more local research on gender differences is straightforward: provide grants and other forms of support for those who wish to study the topic. It would also help to raise the profile of those researchers who make successful intellectual contributions by giving them media coverage and prestigious prizes.

Equally important is institutionalizing dialogue with underrepresented groups. Resources should be allocated to interviewing Gulf women who do make it to the top, and to those who miss out, to understand the difficulties that they face and the potential solutions. Or, as the Greek philosopher Epictetus quipped: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

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Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain

Illustration by Steven Castelluccia.

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