Attracting more women to corporate boards in the UAE has never been easy, and the numbers after a new rule came into effect to bolster their presence to prove it.
Since the country announced on March 15 that listed companies should have at least one woman on the board of directors, only four of the 23 people added to such roles at companies on the UAE’s two major stock exchanges are women, according to the reports. data compiled by Bloomberg. That hardly moves the needle in a country where about 96% of these positions are held by men.
For Fatma Hussain, the only woman on the board of the Dubai-based logistics group Aramex PJSC, the slow pace of progress is proof of a cultural mindset that keeps women away from such roles. Women – especially from conservative backgrounds – avoid positions that may require staying late or interacting with male colleagues, said the UAE national, who is also director of human capital at TECOM Group, a unit of the sovereign investment vehicle Dubai Holding.
“I interview a lot of people, and sometimes a candidate has to ask permission from her parents to accept an offer because there are a lot of men,” said Hussain, who has joined the Aramex board. after the post was published in a local newspaper.
The social context poses an uphill battle for gender equality even as Emirati women make up 70% of all university graduates. While women make up about two-thirds of public sector workers, only 30% hold managerial positions, according to data from the UAE’s Gender Balance Council. A report from JPMorgan Chase & Co. last year did not show “clear data” on the employment of women in the UAE, but felt their participation in the labor market is poor, even when compared to neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
This is the backdrop to the UAE board’s push, with threats of sanctions for companies that fail to comply. An unprecedented step for the Middle East, it comes as the oil-rich Gulf region – long dependent on crude to transport its trillion-dollar economy – seeks to diversify the talent pools it taps into while global dependence on hydrocarbons is diminishing. The World Bank estimates that the participation rate of women in the Middle East and North Africa region is the lowest in the world.
The UAE wants to show they are serious about their new rule. The Securities and Commodities Authority told Bloomberg in a written response to questions that penalties for companies that fail to comply can range from warnings to a fine, or even referral to criminal proceedings. Companies will be asked to disclose their board representation in annual reports, a spokesperson for SCA said.
Since the rule was announced, Dubai’s biggest developer Emaar Properties PJSC, telecommunications provider Du, Abu Dhabi’s national oil company for distribution, a unit of oil giant Adnoc and Dana Gas have appointed women. to their boards of directors.
Gender quotas have proven to be effective in other parts of the world. In France, for example, women occupy at least 40% of managerial positions in large companies, a direct consequence of a law adopted in 2011 where a progressive quota was imposed to increase the participation of women from 20% in 2014. 40% in 2017. Germany, which has had a poor record for female leadership in companies, this year introduced a bill requiring at least one woman on the boards of listed companies.
SCA’s move was “really necessary,” said Racha Alkhawaja, Dubai-based group distribution and development manager at Equitativa Group. “Women have made a huge leap forward in the corporate world over the past decade, but their visibility has not necessarily caught up and, as a result, few of them have yet reached the level advice.”
The mentality that places women in the category of primary caregivers “must change,” she said. “Until that happens, equality will not be achieved. Changing mentalities takes generations. “
Cultural barriers are less of a limitation than they used to be, said Mohamad Hamade, managing director of Amanat Holdings PJSC, which appointed two women to its board even before the new rule.
“I have witnessed the evolution over the past 10 years and it has become much more diverse,” he said. “I don’t think it will be difficult to identify qualified women. There are a lot of great directors who have accomplished a lot, be it locally, regionally or even internationally, and can add a lot of value to publicly traded companies. “
The pressure also comes from investors, who push companies on environmental, social and governance or ESG issues. Companies are making progress, with First Abu Dhabi Bank PJSC, the largest bank in the Gulf country, which this year appointed Hana Al Rostamani as the group’s managing director.
Still, “the reality is we’re starting from a pretty low base,” said Diana Wilde, co-founder of Aurora50, a UAE-based social enterprise that focuses on creating gender-balanced boardrooms. Compared to the United States, where there is at least one woman on each S&P 500 board, or the United Kingdom where over 34% of FTSE 350 board positions are held by women , “It’s pretty low,” she said.