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More women join UAE boards, but progress ‘still slow’

Businesses will benefit 'when their female directors have the numbers to build influence,' says Maliha Jilani Dubai Tourism
Businesses will benefit 'when their female directors have the numbers to build influence,' says Maliha Jilani
  • Women 23% of 2022 board hires
  • But still only 8.9% of total
  • Campaigners warn of ‘tokenism’

When Maha Abdul Majeed Ismail Ali Al Fahim joined the board of Islamic Arab Insurance Company this year, she became part of a growing trend.

Women made up 23 percent of appointments to UAE boards in 2022, from just 12 percent in 2020, according to executive search company Heidrick & Struggles. But campaigners in the Gulf have warned that progress on boardroom diversity remains slow and some female appointments feel like “tokenism”. 

Heidrick & Struggles’ Board Monitor also reported that 59 percent of Dubai and Abu Dhabi-listed companies had at least one woman on the board, but women hold only 8.9 percent of total board seats.

The UAE’s quota of one woman per listed company board, introduced by the Emirates Securities and Commodities Authority in 2021, is driving efforts on diversity, the report said, but some companies are going further.

Maliha Jilani, partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Dubai office and social impact practice lead for the Middle East and North Africa, told AGBI this was having a positive impact on results.  

“Companies incorporating inclusion into their strategies typically observe a stronger link to business results. The bottom line is that a strong leadership bench is key to driving a company’s success and building resiliency,” she said.

The report added, however, that “while having a lone woman on each board is a good start, boards will see more benefits of gender diversity when their female directors have the numbers to build influence and have an impact.”

Emma Burdett, founder of the GCC networking group Women in Leadership Deliver (Wild), also believes the region has a long way to go on the issue.

“The few women who are on boards tend to be the only female, which gives a feeling of tokenism and is just added to the mix for the sake of it,” Burdett said. 

Wild is working with the United Nations in Riyadh on a programme to get more women into leadership roles in Saudi Arabia, training businesses as well as young executives.

“The current pace of change for female leadership is still slow. Whilst we see tremendous efforts from our governments to implement policies surrounding equality, companies have a long way to go,” she added.

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants in the Middle East said it had also observed “positive changes” with women advancing into senior and leadership roles, but added that the gender gap “remains substantial”.

Heidrick & Struggles’ research identified a “concerted effort” to appoint more female first-time board members. In all, 43 percent of the women appointed had previous public board experience, compared to 67 percent of the men.

New board members in the UAE were also among the youngest globally. The average age of the 2022 cohort was 48, down from nearly 50 the previous year and over 52 in 2020. 

The next youngest were found in Poland and Saudi Arabia, where the average age of appointees was 50. The oldest were in the United States and Canada, with an average age of 59.

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