Women in the Middle East are becoming more prominent in the banking world – and with a better gender balance come better decisions.
Women are a growing influence on banking in the Middle East
As well as being a member of Emirates NBD’s group executive committee, Lubna Qassim also sits on the board of a Lebanese bank. It’s a rare position for a female to be in, given the global average of women sitting on boards today is 16 per cent and in the GCC it’s a dismal 2 per cent, according to a recent study by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (Acca) Middle East.
Ms Qassim, an Emirati, says other board members at the Lebanese bank are former ministers and influential members of the Lebanese community, ranging in age from 70 to 90. “It was amazing just to see the reaction at the first board meeting,” she says. “For the first time in their entire careers, a woman walks in. Of course, I giggled internally. They had worked with women – their PAs, their supporters – but here there was a female board member who was not only there to nod heads, but to speak smartly.”
Ms Qassim recently shared her story at a Dubai Business Women’s Council panel talk on why gender balance and diversity make good business sense, held at Dubai’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The executive vice president and group general counsel at Emirates NBD says she has always been “gender blind” in her work and that whenever she notices sexism, she tries to “influence it”. “We add value through these kind of contributions we all make in our everyday lives,” she adds. For Andrew Mortimer, the managing director and country manager for the Middle East at Barclays, Ms Qassim’s story is an example of how women should share their personal success stories.
Barclays itself is a 326-year-old bank, and last year, for the first time in its history, it hit a milestone by employing more women than men, says Mr Mortimer. However, only three out of 13 Barclays board members are women.
“The challenge is for women to climb up the echelons of the organisation and we’re not there yet,” Mr Mortimer admits. But he points out just how much the gender landscape has changed in the financial services industry since 1988, when he started working for a stockbroker. “Back then, it was an incredibly male-dominated, highly testosterone-charged environment. I met my wife there, she was on the sales trading floor. Any of you who’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street can imagine what it must have been like for her.”
To Mr Mortimer, the 2008 financial crisis was “almost the catalyst” for increasing gender diversity in the industry. “Could the number of banks that failed during that period have been averted if we’d the right diverse mix of decision-makers from top to bottom?” he asks. “I think that’s what was missing.”
To root out “unconscious bias” and promote the advancement of women at Barclays, Mr Mortimer says support networks have been created. “We have a mums’ network and a carers network, which bring together individuals to share the challenges they’re facing,” he says. “We’ve also tried hard to enforce flexible working, which is increasingly enabled by technology.”
Fadi Matar, a public and government affairs director for the Dow Chemical Company, is keen to encourage more women to come forward for jobs in his industry. He recalls advertising a job in Saudi Arabia two years ago, and receiving about 40 CVs – all from men. “The lady in HR asked me: how many females did you interview? I said ‘actually, none, because females hadn’t applied’. She said ‘that’s not a reason’,” he says.
“So we went back to the market and, using LinkedIn and search tools, found a number of females and actually ended up recruiting a woman. I was sad to see only males coming forward, because the females believed ‘why should I bother applying? I won’t get it’.”
Dow holds women in leadership sessions where female leaders are invited to share their career success stories.
However Raja Al Gurg, president of the Dubai Women’s Business Council and managing director of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, says that unlike men, many women fail to to broadcast their achievements. Instead they “just keep a low profile and sell their abilities cheaply”.
“Women unfortunately always feel guilty and inferior, they do this to themselves,” she adds. “Why should the men make the paths for women to become leaders? The women themselves can become leaders.”
Ms Al Gurg recalls a lunch with the IMF’s Christine Lagarde at February’s World Government Summit in Dubai, where one woman complained about men refusing to “look at your face and eyes” when she spoke to them.
“I said ‘oh, you accepted that?’ Lagarde, who was sitting next to me, asked ‘Raja, what would you do?’ I said, I would say ‘maybe my points are not valid’ … and go out of the meeting. If there is nobody to hear me, I don’t want to sit and talk in vain.”
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