Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Lack of female board chiefs still a stumbling block for diversity

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi singled out the exclusive nature of 'men’s clubs' in limiting women’s access to broader opportunities

The UAE launched a 20 for 2020 initiative in March to support women in developing board-level experiences. Getty Images   
The UAE launched a 20 for 2020 initiative in March to support women in developing board-level experiences. Getty Images   

A lack of representation of women at the head of company boards and the prevalence of “men’s clubs” continue to challenge female participation in senior management roles.

“Having a woman as a chairperson of a board ... that is really where the biggest challenge is. Very few boards actually have women chairing,” Sheikha Lubna Al Qaisimi, a former minister and board member told an online panel at The Board Summit.

“[After] the financial crisis .... companies chaired by women had much more governance and transparency and delivered better.”

While women have continued to be appointed as board members around the world, very few lead company boards.

A study by Insead in March found that in Sweden, which leads the world in terms of female board representation, only 15 per cent of public sector companies had women at the helm of their boards.

Meanwhile, a recent study by non-profit organisation Catalyst – which analysed more than 8,600 companies in 49 countries – revealed that only 5.3 per cent of board chair positions were held by women in 2018.

The UAE launched a 20 for 2020 initiative in March to support women in developing board-level experiences.

A December 2018 study by asset management company State Street Global Advisers found that of the 170 listed companies in the Gulf, 147 (85.6 per cent) did not have a single female representative on their boards.

Sheikha Al Qasimi also highlighted the exclusive nature of “men’s clubs” in limiting women’s access to broader opportunities.

“My biggest challenge through my career path, and I'm talking about 35 years, is the men's club. And I know this sounds a bit hideous to some people. But there is a tendency and it's a male culture, whereby even if you have meetings and boards, once these meetings are over, the tendency is that these men can actually socialise together, whether they are board members or senior management [and] have that advantage or that edge that we as women don't have,” she said.

There have been several long-running campaigns to increase female board representation over the past decade.

In the UK, the 30% Club was launched by Dame Helena Morrissey in 2010 to increase the representation of women on FTSE 100 company boards by 30 per cent.

Its target was reached in 2018, but chapters have subsequently been launched in other parts of the world, including the Gulf region in 2015, in a bid to replicate its success.

Women in the UAE make up 70 per cent of the country’s university graduates, 46.6 per cent of the workforce and 10 per cent of the leadership of private sector companies, according to data from the Ministry of Finance.

Tayba Al Hashemi, chief executive at Adnoc subsidiary Yahsat Petroleum, said that gender diversity at the board level also made "business sense".

"Gender diversity and leadership, I believe contributes to the innovation thinking that drives competitive advantage to any organisation," she said.

Ms Al Hashemi is one of two female chief executives within the Adnoc Group.

The company, which employs 700 women across its sites, reached the target of 15 per cent female representation at the senior management level at the end of 2019.

Women comprise 12 per cent of Adnoc's workforce – a number the state oil company says is more than double the average in the region.

Updated: August 26, 2020 03:38 PM

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