Globally, there is much debate over the lack of women in leadership positions. Apart from a handful of countries (primarily in Scandinavia), there is still much work to do to ensure equality at board level of companies and in positions of public service.
Impressive strides have been taken by many Arab countries towards gender equality in education, and yet only one in three Arab women between the ages of 23 and 29 participate in their country's labour force versus eight out of 10 males.
The World Bank reports that the Middle East and North Africa region has the lowest female participation rate of any global region. Yet research has demonstrated that having females in an organisation can have a direct impact on financial performance and bottom line. Strong stock market growth is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams. Companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42 per cent higher return in sales, 66 per cent on invested capital and 53 per cent on equity.
Clearly, there are financial rewards to be reaped through a more inclusive and diverse workforce.
So what is being done as a regulatory response to support women in the workplace? Here in the UAE, leaders have in the past few decades paved the way for Emirati women to confidently play their role in advancing the UAE's growth and development as a modern, dynamic nation.
Most recently, the diversity laws introduced at the end of last year will ensure that females are represented at board level in public and private sector organisations.
Quotas have been heavily criticised, particularly in Europe for being a form of discrimination in themselves, designed to create an illusion of progress rather than actually creating it. Merit, performance and ability some feel should determine whether someone is appointed to a board, whether they are male or female, rather than on the basis of gender. However, we feel that as a short-term measure quotas have the power to kick-start a systematic change by ensuring female representation.
Other legislation, such as flexible working practices as well as maternity and paternity provisions, can be supportive of a woman's role in the workplace, and public and private sector organisations alike need to take appropriate steps to ensure that they cultivate an environment that is supportive of females entering work, staying there and potentially coming back after starting a family.
Slowly, cultural and institutional patterns are evolving with regards to family life, not just in the Middle East but on a global level.
At DLA Piper we are also challenged with a lack of women in leadership positions, particularly at partner level. That said, our international board comprises about 30 per cent women, demonstrating best practice from the top. However, globally, about 20 per cent of our partners are women, something we are actively addressing through our diversity framework, which focuses on four key areas: recruitment; development; retention and progression. There are also policies that are supportive to enable flexible working practices and ensure our processes support equality and career progression.
Our firm aims to increase the representation of women at all levels within the organisation. But it shouldn't be all about gender. The wider debate is around inclusion and diversity on every level, and forward-thinking organisations are including this in their recruitment and wider organisational strategies.
While the role of women in the workplace requires due consideration and supportive measures on the part of businesses, public-sector organisations and governments, the current debate should be much broader than just about gender. Equality, diversity and inclusion are fundamental to a successful, sustainable economy and society as a whole.
Abdul Aziz Al Yaqout is the regional managing partner of DLA Piper Middle East