x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai's push for more women in the boardroom

The Dubai Women Establishment is campaigning for more women to become members of corporate boards, despite cultural challenges in the Muslim world.

DUBAI // A shortage of women in corporate boardrooms has led a government organisation to campaign for more diversity.

Women hold only 1.5 per cent of board positions in the GCC's listed companies, according to research by Hawkamah, a Dubai think tank.

The Dubai Women Establishment (DWE) teamed up with the group last year to study the issue and make policy recommendations.

"Women board representation is very low," said Hessa Tahlak, director of corporate development, research and projects at the DWE, part of the Dubai government.

But female board members are valuable because they bring different views, she said.

"Companies with women on boards succeeded, especially during the financial crisis," Ms Tahlak said. "Women are more hesitant to take risks."

DWE's third Arab Women Leadership Forum will focus on women in the boardroom. Titled "Board leadership and the case for diversity", the conference will be held on November 19 and 20 at the Grand Hyatt Dubai.

Lawyer Diana Hamade will participate in a discussion about family businesses - a sector in which it is particularly difficult to increase female leadership.

"Family businesses are usually not subject to regulation because they don't want to be," said Ms Hamade, who writes a column for The National. "They try to keep their data to themselves.

"Most families say women are not the best experts on corporate governance - they're not lawyers or financial accountants - so what's the value of having them on board?"

Partly because Sharia dictates that women inherit less than men, there are unique cultural challenges in Muslim countries, Ms Hamade added.

"That makes [women] much less important in running the family business," she said.

In the UAE, women make up about two thirds of the public-sector workforce and hold many government leadership positions. But the move towards female leadership in the private sector has been slower.

"How come we have not tapped into the women to be able to provide this diversity of opinion on our boards?" asked Nick Nadal, director of Hawkamah, which looked at more than 5,000 board members at listed companies for its study.

In Europe, 15.6 per cent of board positions at large companies are held by women, according to research by the consultancy Egon Zehnder International. Ms Tahlak said the numbers were even higher in Scandinavian countries.

Egon Zehnder reported mixed results on whether government quotas were the best route.

"France and Spain, which both signed up to quotas in 2010, have dramatically increased their board gender diversity in the past two years," the report said. "But as improvement in the UK suggests, the threat of quotas, along with intense media scrutiny, may be nearly as effective as quotas themselves."

By the end of the year, DWE plans to announce the results of a study on diversity, featuring interviews with about 20 businesswomen. "Although the sample is not very big, it's a good start," Ms Tahlak said.

The discussions and research will lead to policy recommendations. The goal is to develop a plan "ensuring that women get a seat at the table", Mr Nadal said.