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Published: May 24, 2011
 / Summer 2011 / Issue 63

 
 

The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

Creating the Right Environment

Even with these personal traits to draw on, women need to work in an environment that does not burden them with legal, social, and cultural constraints. As governments and companies in the GCC recognize the benefits of having more female leaders, they will need to explore and change the factors that keep so many women out of the workforce and thus out of the leadership pipeline.

In the U.S. and Europe, similar concerns have led to a variety of measures to move women into leadership positions. In 2003, the Norwegian parliament decreed that at least 40 percent of all corporate board seats in the country would have to be held by women by 2008; France now has a similar law in place, and other European countries are also considering such measures.

Of course, critics of such initiatives to push women forward have argued that the impact of qualified women will be tainted by the suspicion that they have been put in place only to meet diversity requirements, and that the better approach is to simply remove the obstacles that stand in women’s way. Some researchers, such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett (whose consulting firm, Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates LLC, has an exclusive alliance with Booz & Company, s+b’s publisher), have set out to find the root causes of constraints on female leadership, such as lack of senior sponsorship, career paths that do not take into account women’s need for flexibility, and ineffective recruiting practices.

Women leaders in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries come down on both sides of this debate. “I think establishing quotas might backfire if women are placed in positions without the necessary knowledge or background,” says Al Thani. “I would rather make sure the ground is level for everyone.”

Others feel that quotas or other measures, such as incentives to hire women, are critical in countries where women still face constraints. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, strict gender segregation laws make hiring women a more demanding endeavor. For example, there are costs involved in the logistics of segregation: the construction of separate entrances and parallel workspaces and the installation of closed-circuit TV equipment so that men and women can work together without being in the same room. As a result, it is easier for companies to simply maintain the status quo of all-male offices if governments do not give them incentives to do otherwise. “In the end, corporations want the easiest way,” says Muna AbuSulayman, secretary general of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, a philanthropic organization focusing on women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and East/West dialogue. “Since companies have to cater to these rules, the government has to create incentive systems.”

For Haifa Jamal AlLail, president of Effat University (a women’s university in Jeddah), quotas may be one essential component of multifaceted change. “I think removing social obstacles comes first,” she says. “I know that will take time, but then we need the laws, policies, and procedures that will really integrate females into different business and government institutions. Because now, even the institutions that are supposed to be equally open to men and women are still in men’s hands, and they do not really allow women to play a part. We need a bylaw or a royal decree from the king to show that every board has to have women. We also need a quota for hiring females, similar to the Saudization quota [which requires that a certain percentage of employees in any company operating in Saudi Arabia be Saudi nationals]. This will encourage women and make sure they know that female leadership is possible.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. DeAnne Aguirre and Karim Sabbagh, “The Third Billion,” s+b, Summer 2010: Disenfranchised women in both developed and developing nations will gain in economic power in the coming years.
  2. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “The Challenges of Balance,” s+b, Summer 2009: Analysis of the difficulties challenging rapid economic growth in the Gulf states.
  3. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “Measures of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2010: Profiles of business and government leaders in the Gulf region.
  4. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “Oasis Economies,” s+b, Spring 2008: Overview of the GCC’s growing economies and the nature of their development.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at: www.strategy-business.com/global_perspective.