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28 February 2024

Boardroom is still the male room in the UAE

By Criselda E. Diala




While the participation of women in various industries across Dubai is increasing, key corporate decision-making posts are still occupied mostly by men, a survey conducted by Emirates Business has revealed.

The survey found women comprise less than one per cent of the overall executive boardroom membership of 53 Dubai Financial Market (DFM)-listed companies. There are only three women among the 371 men sitting in the boardrooms of the companies in focus – an approximate ratio of one woman director to every 124 men.

Even more surprising is the fact that none of the concerned women directors are based in the UAE. They include Qatar-based Sheikha Hanadi Nasser Bin Khaled Al Thani of Shuaa Capital, Kuwait-based Wafa Ahmad Al Qatami of the International Financial Advisors and Maha Khalid Al Ghunaim of the Global Investment House and National Industries Group Holding KSC.

Boardroom equality has been considered a hot topic, particularly in Europe where Scandinavian countries led by Norway have been lobbying for a stronger female board presence. Public companies across Norway were in a rush to meet the 1 January 2008 deadline of filling at least 40 per cent of their board seats with women directors or run the risk of being shut down, as required by a 2003 amended law.
Such policy has placed Norway as a forerunner of the cause for gender equality. According to The Guardian, Norway has the highest proportion of women directors at 36 per cent, followed by Sweden with 19 per cent, the US at 15 per cent and the UK with 11 per cent.

To date, no extensive study has been done to determine the presence and scope of contribution of women to the UAE economy. But businesswomen groups claim the presence of women professionals in a wide range of industries, including small and medium enterprises, is steadily gaining ground.

A source at the Emirates Businesswomen Council (EBWC) disclosed as of 2006, their membership for both Emirati and expatriate professionals stands at 10,271. This covers the various businesswomen councils in the seven emirates of the UAE.

“We have seen more women professionals diverting from traditional fields such as education and the service industry to go to engineering, construction, commerce and entrepreneurship,” said Fathma Ahmed Al Mogany, Chairperson of the Sharjah Businesswomen Council. “Women used to be afraid to take risks in setting up their own businesses, but that mindset is slowly changing especially among the Emiratis,” she added.

Sue-Sharyn Ward, committee member of the International Business Women’s Group (IBWG) in Dubai, said their group has witnessed a considerable increase in the number of expatriate members over the years.

“In 1983, when the group started, there were only a dozen women, mostly British. At this point in time, our membership fluctuates between 250 and 300 each year because businesswomen here are very transient. One year they are here, the next they may have to return to their country or are perhaps busy to join group activities,” she said.

As a not-for-profit organisation, the IBWG-Dubai comprises volunteers who regularly organise workshops and networking events.

“Our membership is individual to the business woman and we focus on helping women. It’s all about giving to the women, not to the companies they own or the countries they represent, the skills they need to help them in their profession,” said Ward.

Perhaps one of the few Dubai-based women executives who have narrowed the corporate world’s gender gap is Elaine Jones, CEO of Asteco Property Management LLC. She believes the opportunities for women are breaking new grounds.

Commenting on the Emirates Business survey, Jones said it is also interesting to note some of the top public and private officials in the UAE are women such as Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, Minister of Economy (pictured above); Salma Hareb, CEO of Jebel Ali Free Zone and Economic Zones World; and Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid, CEO of the investment firm Forsa.

“I think soon we can see more women in very powerful positions. The opportunities for women are growing because they are generally recognised for being more responsible, able to multi-task and having a caring attitude,” said Jones, who was also recognised as the 2007 Businesswoman of the Year by the Middle East Businesswomen and Leaders Achievements Awards.

Ward also mentioned about 70 per cent of IBWG’s members are entrepreneurs, while the rest work in multi-cultural companies. “A lot of women see a niche market here because Dubai is not very transparent [when it comes to places] where you can get services. Women think they can fill that need but some don’t do a good feasibility study to ensure if they actually have a niche,” she said.

Despite this, she said most of the IBWG members’ businesses have been sustainable. “A large percentage of our members have businesses that are doing very well. They have been in the industry for more than six years. What is happening in Dubai is exceptional. I don’t think we can talk about sustainability here because we all feel like we’re in this big bubble,” she said.

When asked if the glass ceiling exists in the UAE, Ward confirmed it still does. “I was asked this question 12 years ago and there was. The glass ceiling is still here but it is much thinner now,” she said.

Profile: Elaine Jones CEO, Asteco Property Management

When Elaine Jones co-founded Asteco Property Management (APM) in 1985, she saw a niche market that was undeniably underserved. Her decision to get involved in the property industry proved to be both a timely and proactive move, considering the development plan that was laid out for Dubai.

“In the mid-80’s there weren’t that many commercial purpose-built buildings except for the Arbift Tower in Deira and the World Trade Centre. Most companies held their offices in residential buildings or apartments. [Realising this], we encouraged the development of more office spaces. That led us to get involved in commercial, retail and block management,” said Jones, who is now APM’s Chief Executive Officer.

As one of perhaps few female expatriates in the UAE who have managed to break the glass ceiling, Jones said being a woman in a predominantly male environment can be very challenging, particularly for someone like her who has to strike a balance between family and career. But she has managed to pull it through because she has set her priorities in place without necessarily sacrificing her professional dedication.

“Men would often have ego. I am no threat to any man. My home background is very important to me. I believe, if you’re happy with what you’re doing, then you’ll be fine,” she said.