The Middle East is a fascinating region with wonderful opportunities for business executives. But what about for female business executives in particular? This is the region of the globe where perceptions of gender inequality are arguably most prevalent. We will examine the facts related to female business leadership in the Middle East, and prescribe if this is a location prime for ambitious women to take advantage of.
The current outlook of women in prominent business roles is definitely underwhelming. According to a study conducted by Mercer, a quarter of Middle Eastern organisations have no female leadership in their 100 most senior roles. Meanwhile, women leaders hold more than 30% of senior positions in only 4% of organisations. One survey indicates that women are principal owners in just 13% of Middle Eastern firms; this statistic is less than half the world average.[Tweet “Women are principal owners in just 13% of ME firms; half the world average via @careerintel”]
These low numbers are not restricted purely to executive positions. Only about 28% of the adult female population in the region is economically active; this is the lowest percentage in the world.
What are the challenges?
Unfortunately, cultural bias does play a role in this disproportionate executive equality. Just as in every other region of the world, there is still a natural inclination to regard men as breadwinners and women as being better equipped for domestic life.
Further, as a region where families have to regularly deal with poverty and turmoil, it is seemingly justified to give priority to the personified breadwinner, the male, at the detriment of women. Especially during turbulent political times-which typically brings about economic fallout and higher unemployment, the jobs available are given to men rather than women.
Cultural bias, however, is not the only pressing challenge facing the promotion of women to executive roles. The region’s business practices in general are at fault for this sharp contrast of males-to-females in leadership positions. Although half of the companies surveyed in the Middle East had defined leadership development strategies, they reported that the sense of urgency necessary to focus new attention and resources on this issue does not exist.
There is a lack of time, resources and prioritization on nurturing future talent. For instance, Middle Eastern businesses are spending less than their global peers, with only 29% spending $10,000 or more per person per year to train and develop future business leaders; another 35% spend less than $500.
This traditional lack of spending comes at a great detriment to female executive candidates, who would make up a significant proportion of these training programs. If these women are not given the initial training and opportunity to qualify for positions, they will never be in a position to legitimately contend for these positions.
Where progress is being made
Some of the nations in the region have recognized the problem of gender inequality in the executive sphere and are looking at ways to amend this. For example, the United Arab Emirates is looking to introduce more regulations to help increase women’s presence in executive positions, according to the country’s minister of economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri.
“We are looking at some regulations where we can bring up the participation of women in the economy and it should not be a problem. It does not necessarily have to be laws…it could be regulations as well,” said Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri.
The growth of women with formal education is another positive development being made. Seemingly against the odds, women now outpace men in terms of education. 67% of university graduates in Kuwait are female. Similar figures are found in Qatar (63%) and even in Saudi Arabia (57%).
Freedom House also indicates that women are becoming more visible in public life and in the world of business. Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar have all dropped laws requiring women to get a guardian’s permission for a passport. Saudi Arabia now gives women the chance to study law and to check into hotels alone.
Multinationals like General Electric are also beginning to increasingly hire women to managerial positions, even in markets such as Saudi Arabia. “We see women as a rich untapped talent in this part of the world,” says Joe Chalouhi, HR director for GE Energy in the UAE.[Tweet “”We see women as a rich untapped talent in this part of the world” – Joe Chalouhi (GE Energy, UAE)”]
What does the future hold?
The only constant in this world is change. Just as with the growth of female executives in Europe and North America, the Middle East is not immune to cultural change. As can already be witnessed, opportunities are available for women in this market, albeit in slightly less numbers than other locales. This is especially true for women with executive experience outside of the Middle East, thereby negating the need for organizations to spend resources on leadership training. Expect this chance to continue, as major organisations such as the UN leading women empowerment in the Middle East movements, the awareness is there and action is waiting to take effect; leading to more opportunities for female executives to prosper in this burgeoning market.
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