Voices from the top: Women business leaders paving the future
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Voices from the top: Women business leaders paving the future

Voices from the top: Women business leaders paving the future

In this report, we hear from some of women business leaders on the challenges they faced, how their organisations have dealt with the Covid crisis and their expectations for 2022


As we approach the end of 2021, a lot of things have changed dramatically – the way we live and work has been transformed by the pandemic, with individuals and businesses forced to introspect at processes and mindsets to ensure priorities are in place.

In that context, it is vital that we relook at the issue of female participation in the workforce and in leadership positions, and focus on how that can be boosted. Globally, women’s labour force participation rates have moved closer to men’s over the past few decades, but much of the recent progress on women’s advancement could be at risk of collapse due to the pandemic, with women one of the hardest hit categories by the crisis, according to the UN.

Even pre-crisis, women – in every country – were less likely than men to engage in paid work, a 2019 report by the OECD found. “Women in the MENA region remain an untapped resource for the economy. While women represent around 49 per cent of the region’s total population, their participation in the labour force and corporate leadership positions is significantly lower,” the OECD report stated.

It also found that when women do work, they are more likely to work part-time, are less likely to become managers or board members, and on average earn less than men. The average representation of women on the boards of the largest 142 public companies in MENA stood at 4.8 per cent of total voting board seats (60 of 1,258 seats), the report found, with 31 per cent of companies having at least one women board member, 24.6 per cent having at least two and only 7 per cent having three or more women board members.

“Women’s economic empowerment underpinned by sound corporate governance is a critical policy area that supports economic growth and competitiveness. Policies to increase women’s access and participation on corporate boards and in senior management positions can be driven by governments, regulators and companies themselves, with measures adapted to specific contexts. Policies can include quotas; reporting requirements; targets; voluntary disclosure by companies of gender composition or gender equality policies; increasing the size of a board; and actively recruiting qualified women to replace outgoing male board members,” it advised.

On the brighter side, things are changing – especially in most of the GCC countries, where policies have been announced to support stronger participation of women. In March, the UAE announced that all listed companies will be required to have at least one female director on their board. The move is aimed at empowering Emirati women and encouraging them to play a greater role on the boards of listed companies, the Securities and Commodities Authority said in a statement at the time.

That same month, the UAE Central Bank also partnered with Aurora50, a social enterprise focusing on achieving gender-balanced boardrooms to “advance female representation on public and private sector boards”. Over the last three years, the UAE has passed more than 20 legislative reforms to enhance women’s economic participation, according to the UAE Gender Balance Council. Thanks to these reforms, the country was ranked first in the MENA region this year in the World Bank’s 2021 Women, Business
and the Law report.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has also announced a slew of measures aimed at addressing gender diversity in the workplace. Among the roughly 74,000 Saudi nationals who joined the kingdom’s employment market in 2020, more than 51,000 were women, according to local media reports, with the representation of women in the labour force rising from 25.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 to 31.4 per cent in Q2. The country also aims to create one million jobs for women as part of its ambitious Vision 2030.

Bahrain has also made progress towards gender balance in business ownership, with 42 per cent of all commercial registrations in the kingdom female-owned. The country also has the highest share of female founders in the world, with 18 per cent of homegrown startups founded by women, compared to 15 per cent in London and 16 per cent in Silicon Valley, according to the country’s Supreme Council for Women. Perhaps one of the key drivers that will further encourage this momentum is hearing from women who have broken barriers and led from the front.

Read: Voices from the top: Rola Abu Manneh, CEO, Standard Chartered UAE

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