SMEs in the UAE narrow the gender gap
Big business often means a big gender gap – but the opposite is true of the thriving SME sector in the Emirates.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are approaching equality in terms of the employment of men and women, unlike the country’s male-dominated corporate boardrooms, new research has found.
Opportunities for promotion, less bureaucracy and more flexible working conditions are just some of the factors behind that, executives say.
Just ask Nada Zagallai, managing director of the Dubai-based GlamBox.ME, which sells subscriptions to packages of beauty samples in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Eight of the company’s 10 employees are women, something Ms Zagallai said is a reflection of the employment and promotion opportunities offered by smaller businesses, rather than her own company’s largely female customer base.
“There’s definitely a lot more opportunity for women to be in mid to senior-level positions, as opposed to the corporate world,” she says of start-ups and SMEs in general.
Getting a promotion in a big company can involve a “long-winded” appraisals process – something smaller businesses don’t have time for, Ms Zagallai adds. And SMEs are generally more flexible on working hours and holidays.
“Women who do have families and do have children need flexibility in their day-to-day lives. And I think that’s the opportunity they find in SMEs,” she says.
“That said, it doesn’t mean that they work less, that they need less time, or are part-time employees.”
According to the business intelligence company Meed, 46 per cent of SMEs in the UAE have a majority of female staff, based on the responses of more than 50 companies surveyed ahead of the Gulf Capital SME Awards in October.
Richard Thompson, the editorial director of Meed, says there was a trend among SMEs in the country employing more women.
“It’s a fundamental part of the DNA of small and start-up companies,” he says. “Their focus is about getting the job done. They can’t afford for things like prejudices to get in the way.”
An analysis of the survey shows four main reasons behind women featuring so prominently in the SME workforce, Mr Thompson says.
Small companies are not held back by pre-existing corporate culture, generally have more diverse thinking and are more likely to be involved in female-focused businesses, he says. “Men are often less keen to accept the risks of joining a small company, where job security can be perceived as more of a concern,” he added.
Ambareen Musa, the founder and chief executive of the financial products comparison site Souqalmal.com, says visa costs can be another factor behind small companies employing a higher proportion of women.
“I have seen many very small companies leaning towards women who are already on their father’s or husband’s visa,” she says. “This brings down the cost of employment considerably, and smaller companies feel it is less of a risk if things do not work out.”
Although the Meed survey shows that the SME workforce is still slightly skewed towards men, the results indicate a far greater level of diversity compared to bigger businesses.
The UAE scores poorly in global indicators of the participation of women in the overall workforce. It placed 115th out of 142 countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap rating, its lowest rating since the global survey began in 2006. And according to a study in late 2012 by Dubai-based Hawkamah, the Institute for Corporate Governance, there were only 11 women directors serving on the boards of companies listed on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange and Dubai Financial Market.
But the government has taken strides to address this issue through initiatives such as the Gender Balance Council, launched in February by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Chaired by Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the council will work to ensure women are given leading roles in the development of the country.
Mr Thompson pointed to the large proportion of big UAE companies in the construction, industry and energy sectors, which he says “employ very high volumes of male workers”.
But Ms Zagallai says the achievements of women globally show that it is an employee’s skills-set – not the sector they choose – that is the most important factor.
“Women fulfil roles; what the product or entity is tends to be irrelevant,” she says. “A creative marketing person can equally sell lipstick as much as she can a Xerox machine or an oil drill.”
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