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Gender gulf remains too wide but new paths are opening to women

With just 5.3 percent of board positions in the UAE held by females, the country has set a quota for listed companies to have at least one woman on the board by 2025

ACCA's Women in Finance initiative aims to get more females into the boardroom Supplied
ACCA's Women in Finance initiative aims to get more females into the boardroom

Diversity in the corporate world doesn’t happen by itself. It is the result of sustainable, ongoing initiatives and a concerted commitment by men and women – working together – in the workplace. 

And when it comes to improving the boardroom gender gulf – it is far larger than a “gap” – the work must start much earlier, in order to see the next generation of women afforded the opportunity to let their talents reach full potential.

We know that, for women, climbing the corporate ladder to senior leadership is a long hard road, given that just eight percent of chief executives globally are female, according to the latest Forbes report.

And just three percent of the CEOs in financial services are women. In the Middle East, only 8.9 percent of board members are female. 

This month ACCA launched its year-long Women in Finance initiative.

Women in Finance seeks to support and encourage more women into finance positions in the corporate world – in executive positions, senior management and, of course, into boardrooms.

As the global body for professional accountants, we’re convinced of the opportunities that accountancy can offer to people from all walks of life.

We were the first professional accountancy body in the world to admit women and Women in Finance reaffirms ACCA’s commitment to that agenda. 

However, to make a real difference neither we nor women can work alone.

Thankfully, there are more organisations, practices and tools to source, support and measure the progression of qualified women into leadership and boardroom positions.

More governments are also implementing national strategies to support women into senior roles. 

To get more women into boardrooms you need to reach them when they are starting their careers

The UAE, for example, has a set quota for all listed companies to have at least one woman on their board by 2025.

Aurora50, a social enterprise organisation with a specific mandate to see more women join boards, showed in their recent report that progress is happening.

But I believe more needs to be done to make this progress faster. The gulf is still far too wide.

Figures in another report by Deloitte make for thought-provoking reading.

Last year, only 5.3 percent of board positions in the UAE were held by women; just 1.7 percent of board members in Saudi Arabia were female and just 1.2 percent in Qatar.

Only 11 of the countries listed have a national quota addressing this issue and the UAE is one. 

Having a national quota is crucial in tracking progress and holding organisations, both private and public ones, accountable.

In 2020 women held 3.5 percent of all board positions in the UAE. In 2021, the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA) set a quota for all listed companies to put at least one woman on their boards by 2025.

As of June 2022 women hold 8.9 percent of the 868 listed board seats in the UAE. 

Dr Maryam Buti Alsuwaidi, CEO of the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA), said: “The regulatory requirement of having at least one woman board member on each listed company’s board has clearly had the desired impact, as it has in other countries that have set similar mandates. 

“Norway and France, the world leaders in having women on corporate boards, both had set 40 percent quotas and have been successful in surpassing that target in the past two decades. 

“Gender diversity on boards positively impacts a company’s future success and profits by creating diversity of thought, while such inclusive leadership encourages more women to join, thrive and succeed in listed companies at all levels.”

It’s a result that is good news for everyone – the benefits of having a diverse talent pool in the workplace are good news for businesses, the economy and our social fabric.

So how do we speed it up?

One thing we know is that to get more women into boardrooms you need to reach them when they are starting their careers, support them through their mid-career years when many take time out to raise families, and then be by their side as they return to work and continue up the ladder. 

Mentoring is one crucial part of this and we see time and time again how powerful it is.

At our launch event for Women in Finance our keynote speaker, Jazla Hamad, the first Emirati woman to become a partner with Deloitte, mentioned how she was mentored as an intern and credited this as a big factor towards her success. 

Hamad is a trailblazer but the path for others behind her is that much easier now.

By engaging early on in careers companies can be sure they are developing the talent and skills they need on their board to drive business forward as opposed to simply hiring to “fill a quota”.

This is why ACCA works with several UAE government entities to support more women into senior leadership roles.

It’s part of our mandate in promoting the accountancy profession in the region, and also aligns with the UAE’s own objectives to be a leading country when it comes to having equal numbers of women in government and private sector roles. 

We work with ADNOC, TDRA, Smart Government and ADGM Academy on various programmes that support and encourage more women into finance roles across the board and, ultimately, onto boards.

Progress is being made. Deloitte pointed out in their 2021 report Within Reach: Leadership, Representation and Gender Equity in Financial Services that “the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms has modestly risen from 22 percent to 24 percent.” 

And the UAE, for instance, has moved from one of the lowest ranking countries in the world for women’s employment to 18th place in the UN Development Programme gender inequality index.

A corporate career is a lifelong undertaking with myriad challenges, both planned and unexpected, between the first rung and the boardroom. 

With initiatives such as ACCA’s Women in Finance that align with the UAE government’s goals for greater gender parity in the workplace, I am glad we play a crucial part in keeping the conversation going on how aspiring female leaders and board members can forge a path to the top.

Fazeela Gopalani is the head of the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA) Middle East, which is spearheading an initiative to support more women into executive and leadership roles in the finance industry.