“Most of my team are women,” announced Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and the Ruler of Dubai, earlier this year on International Women’s Day.
His statement may come as a shock to some, given that the Middle East is often wrongly portrayed as a wasteland of women’s rights. The preconceived notion that Middle Eastern states treat women as second-class citizens is not without reason: in some countries in the Gulf, women cannot vote, rape victims are charged with crimes, and it was only this year that women in Saudi Arabia earned the right to drive. However, Arab states have, more recently, taken great strides in improving women’s rights, and they can even serve as a model for Western nations to imitate when it comes to promoting gender diversity in boardrooms.
Research conducted by the Pearl Initiative, an organization which promotes transparency and accountability for companies in the Gulf, reports that 32 percent of family-owned companies in the Gulf region – a major segment of the Gulf’s economy – have women on their boards. The pattern is similar with executive roles: Maryam Bahlooq was appointed CEO of a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates’s largest bank, Emirates NBD, and Rania Nashar was named the chief executive officer of Saudi Arabia’s Samba Financial Group earlier this year. The increased executive positions women are occupying in the UAE follows a law passed by Sheikh Mohammed in 2012 making it mandatory to have female board members in all government agencies and companies.
On the global level, multiple studies have found that increased gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with more profitable returns for a company. The Credit Suisse Research Institute found that multibillion dollar companies with female board members demonstrated a 26 percent higher return on equity (ROE) than those with all-male boards. Deloitte Middle East also reported that companies with female board members outperformed companies lacking board gender diversity by 36 percent. `
However, gender diverse boardrooms mean much more than just better financial performance for a company – women in executive positions radiate the message of equality and accessibility throughout the corporate hierarchy and also to members of a community. Islamic culture portrays Arab women as the backbone of any Middle Eastern family and the crux of the familial social structure. It follows then – with increased educational opportunities available – that women take on a more prominent role in society. However, although 70 percent of college graduates in the UAE are women, deeply ingrained social customs make it that much more difficult for educated women to transition into a male dominated workforce.
A gender diverse boardroom directly correlates to a gender diverse company: an Arab woman in senior management propagates a cycle that not only encourages more gender diversity at the executive and corporate levels, but also disrupts the barriers that women newly entering the workforce face. After all, before tackling gender inequality in the workforce, companies must first address gender imbalances at the executive level, for directors often establish the image and values of a corporation.
Furthermore, just as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and YouTube’s Susan Wojciki serve as role models for young girls in America, a female Arab CEO illustrates to Arab youth that their dreams are attainable. An Arab woman in an executive role empowers young Arab girls to believe in themselves and exemplifies that they are more than able and capable to thrive in underrepresented fields in the workforce like science, technology, and business.
Progress has been made worldwide: Norway and France have already taken action through legislation, similar to laws passed in the UAE, that require companies to recruit women on their executive boards. These laws have allowed these European countries to entertain incredibly diverse boardrooms with almost equal gender representation.
However, not all countries enjoy the same benefits. While women make up 45 percent of the American workforce, they only represent a staggeringly low 12 percent of the available executive seats in America's boardrooms. Even developed nations have a long way to go to improve upon the gender imbalances present higher up the corporate ladder. Despite all the progress being made, executive level gender inequality must be more readily addressed for a company’s continued growth – a woman in the boardroom widens a company’s perspective and more importantly serves as a representative voice for half the population of the world.