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Having women in the C-suite drives diversity. Then why are Middle East businesses lagging behind?

Women encounter unconscious bias or microaggressions at all stages of their careers, especially in senior positions

Having women in the C-suite drives diversity. Then why are Middle East businesses lagging behind?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

The recent Women, Peace and Security conference in Abu Dhabi highlighted how excluding women from peace negotiations and leadership positions could cost nations billions of dollars.

“There is a cost to the exclusion that can be easily quantified,” said Susanne Mikhail, Regional Director of UN Women for the Arab States, at the conference. 

Women in the C-suite considerably enhance net margins, according to a study that included 21,980 businesses from 91 nations. A flourishing firm with 30% women leaders may anticipate an increase in its profit by more than 1% compared to a firm with no female leaders.

In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, women account for only 6.8% to 10% of senior managers, according to a McKinsey report. One could argue that in recent years, more women have joined the workforce in the region and are climbing the corporate ladder. But there is still a sizable gender gap in the C-suite. Over 85% of GCC-listed companies have no female board members.

“The world still has a men’s club, and women need to work twice as hard to be heard within the C-suite. Often their ideas require more convincing and negotiation than their male counterparts,” says Ann-Marie Campbell, former chief people officer at Alshaya Group. 


According to Campbell, breaking into a well-established executive team, where most of the males have worked together for 20 years plus, which by default is a “club,” is challenging. This only seems to exist where there is no diversity at the board level, be that gender, age or ethnicity.

“Whether it’s a field job or a technical role, bias exists. It is an unconscious bias,” says Clamira Khalil, who works at a consultancy company in Lebanon.

Emphasizing her point, Khalil adds, “Once I attended a meeting to present my views on programming and related issues, but my boss withdrew the invitation after pointing out that it wasn’t the best place for me to do that. Ironically, my boss invited me to the meeting as he was impressed by the points I raised about programming earlier.”

According to a survey, women encounter unconscious bias or microaggressions at all stages of their careers, especially in senior positions. As women advance in their jobs, microaggressions take on several forms: The need to demonstrate their ability more than others is cited as the main workplace microaggression by 25% of entry-level women and 31% of women in management. In contrast, senior-level women experience this problem more frequently (64%) than senior-level men (14%), specifically citing having their judgment called into doubt in their field of competence.

But what causes this disparity? “There are not that many women at the table to encourage the conversation of diversity and fair opportunities,” says Shenin Hamid, founder and CEO at Inspire Group.

This is why, for instance, women-led businesses only garnered 2.8% of financing in 2020, which is a disproportionate impact.

“This will only change when more women are brought to the table to encourage this conversation and influence change. I’ve had people tell me that this is because there aren’t many women who qualify for those positions,” Hamid adds.

Hamid believes that women often downplay their qualifications.


Talking about barriers that play a role in workplace discrepancy, many point out the long-standing preconceived notions about women leaders being confrontational, aggressive, emotional, or weak.

While some blamed it on societal and cultural conditioning, many reasoned that men are frequently rated for career advancement based on their potential, but women are judged on their prior performance.

According to Sacha Haider, partner at Global Ventures, a mix of generational discrepancies and structural factors have consistently excluded women from participation. It boils down to a legacy challenge, she says. Women have historically not held these roles, which explains the slow pace of change. 

In parallel, however, Haider adds, “We have been seeing a growing awareness of the importance of board diversity, from social justice and business performance perspective.”

A handful of women were appointed to top leadership positions this year across the GCC. The CEO of Samba Financial Group and the CFO of Arab National Bank are women, as is the chair of the Saudi stock exchange. And Haider believes women’s representation at other levels, such as boards and investment portfolios, will increase as the proportion of women in the C-suite rises.


To bring change in the region, experts suggest including all stakeholders in conversations and efforts. “The way ahead is that true diversity needs to happen, not just lip service or tick-box exercises,” says Campbell.

“The change will require a social perspective shift,” Haider says while adding that both public and private sectors should make a concentrated effort to ensure diversity in boardrooms. “It facilitates a richer conversation and perspective.”

According to experts, the MENA region is evolving, with the UAE taking a significant lead in inclusion at the top. Since 2009, the UAE has begun to nominate women as ambassadors. The UAE currently has nine women ambassadors. Saudi Arabia, too, according to Hamid, has women in prominent and important positions in their administration.

“Countries such as UAE and KSA, with a big vision for the future, understand the importance of women’s leadership and the value they bring. It is only a matter of time until the rest of the region is influenced through data and valid case studies on the gravity of elevated success that women in C-suite roles bring.”

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