Almost a third of family-owned businesses across the GCC have one or more female board members, a study shows.
The Pearl Initiative, a private non-profit organisation set up to improve transparency and accountability in Arab countries, interviewed this month representatives from more than 100 family-owned firms as part of a report on governance practices.
Of those questioned, 32 per cent had at least one woman sitting on the board - a figure that dwarfs established economies.
Women on Boards, a British government report, last year showed that 11.4 per cent of board members in the United States were women.
In the United Kingdom it was 7.8 per cent, and in Japan it was less than 1 per cent.
"Family firms obviously are clearly a huge proportion of the economy of the GCC and we do find that increasingly family firms do have a female board member on the board, which is great," said Imelda Dunlop, the executive director of the Pearl Initiative.
Family membership can, in some cases, secure a seat on a family business board, according to Rana Ghandour Salhab, a partner in talent and communications at Deloitte Middle East. But family businesses also tend to be progressive and encourage younger members to study.
"Thirty-two per cent is an exceptionally high number, even compared to developed countries' standards but I would like to see women ... make it to these positions even if it is a publicly owned company or a private sector company where the family situation does not control it," said Ms Salhab.
Women currently hold just 1.5 per cent of board positions in listed companies across the GCC. But the latest figures do not mean family companies are statistically more likely to have female board members.
"One point five per cent of boardroom seats are obviously all companies around the region. It's the number of seats, whereas ours is 32 per cent of family boards have one or more female family board members," she said.
"They could be, depending on how many boardroom seats and boards there are in the region, equivalent or parallel," added Ms Dunlop.
Precise figures for female board membership in the GCC are rare. But a number of studies have been done on the connection between women on boards and company performance.
Catalyst, a US non-profit that aims to expand opportunities for women in business, split Fortune 500 companies into quartiles depending on the number of women on their boards in a 2007 study.
"The top quartile [made up of companies with more women board members] outperformed the bottom quartile based on return on equity, return on sales and return on invested capital," Ms Dunlop said.
The Credit Suisse Research Institute established a similar link, concluding companies with a market capitalisation of more than US$10 billion (Dh36.72bn) that had female board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 per cent globally over a period of six years, according to Bloomberg News.
"Diversity creates wealth," said Muna Al Gurg, the director of retail for the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, a UAE family-owned business that has three female board members, including herself.
"Any company which wants to be competitive must look at this gender balance issue," added Ms Al Gurg, who was a judge on the recent UAE reality television show, The Entrepreneur.
Quotas, which were announced by the UAE Government last week, are the "quickest and most effective way" of ensuring more equal numbers of men and women on boards, she said.
"It's a good transitional point and very good for the UAE business environment."