x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Banks in touch with feminine side

UAE lenders are offering women more flexibility to juggle a career and the demands of motherhood, choosing female candidates over males when credentials are the same.

Sumeet Sandhu, the Investment Products Manager of Branch Banking at Barclays bank, pictured at her workplace in Dubai on June 4, 2009.
Sumeet Sandhu, the Investment Products Manager of Branch Banking at Barclays bank, pictured at her workplace in Dubai on June 4, 2009.

Some banks in the UAE have started making their workplaces more accommodating for women ­employees. The changes include offering women more flexibility to juggle a career and the demands of motherhood; choosing female candidates over males when credentials are the same; and creating programmes to help women advance in the company. At least two banks offer new mothers additional time off. The law requires 45 days of maternity leave in which the employees receive full benefits and their positions are secure. Barclays allows new mothers to take an additional 180 unpaid days while HSBC offers four extra months, with the first two months on half pay and two more months unpaid. "To recruit and retain the best talent, a company has to adapt to the needs of the workforce where it is possible," says Ammar Shams, the head of human resources for HSBC in the UAE. Both banks also allow new mothers to return part time or work hours that would accommodate their family duties, in some cases. Special programmes or preferences for hiring members of one demographic group over others has long been used in some western labour markets, which introduced them to increase under-represented groups. The UAE banks, too, have made attempts to increase the ranks of employees who are nationals. Barclays' flexible schedule for new mothers is part of its global Diversity and Inclusion campaign launched last year. The campaign identified recruiting and training women in the emerging markets as a goal, says Fiona el Bassuni, the head of monitoring and training at Barclays in the UAE. As part of that programme, the bank in the UAE also launched its Women's Leadership Programme in April. In general, men outnumber women on the staff, with the gap significantly wider at the senior management and executive levels, Ms el Bassuni says. Barclays selects five women who are in middle management to work on projects outside their departments. These women will work closely with executives. "The goal is to increase the management and leadership skills of the women and to increase their visibility within the organisation," Ms el Bassuni says. One of the women in the programme, Sumeet Sandhu, has lofty goals. "I want to be the managing director of Barclays at country level," says Ms Sandhu, who is the manager of investment products for branch banking. She has been at Barclays for more than two years. On top of her work duties, Ms Sandhu is now working on a project with the head of the treasury to create an operating manual for sales of foreign exchange and derivatives. Working on the project "benefits me in terms of boosting my skills and interest, which I could possibly move with in the future", she says. Ms el Bassuni says the bank's performance review of management gauges the level of diversity, especially the portion of women and nationals on the staff. But she added that the company does not encourage diversity at the expense of meritocracy. "We will not ever say you should promote this person because she is a woman, but we could say if there are two equal candidates you can select the woman," Ms el Bassuni says. The National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) also has an affirmative action programme to favour women. "If we have two identical candidates, we may pick the woman but they really would have to be exact in their capabilities," says Ehab Hassan, the bank's corporate head of human resources. Mr Shams says that although the programmes benefit all women, many were originally designed to attract Emirati women. Today, at many banks, Emirati women already outnumber their male counterparts. At NBAD, for instance, women make up 450 of the 750 nationals employed. "In general, Emirati women tend to do better in banking," Mr Hassan says. "Why? I can't put my finger on it but maybe because banking is about customer service and women are better at it naturally." mjalili@thenational.ae