Raising the standard for women

08 March 2020
More action is needed to improve opportunities for women in the region, says Rola Abu Manneh, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in the UAE

The empowerment of women is a core element of the reform programmes underway across the region. But despite progress, women still face many career barriers that their male counterparts do not, says Rola Abu Manneh, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in the UAE. Manneh is the first Emirati woman to head a bank in the UAE.

Q: How are opportunities for women changing in the region?

“There has been significant improvement in gender equality in the workplace. Looking at the UAE specifically, we have seen both government entities and private organisations make considerable effort in supporting women and fostering an environment for them to thrive. This has been especially evident in the financial sector, where, according to the Central Bank of the UAE, Emirati women account for about 75.3 per cent of UAE citizens – a significant figure.

“Women are a key pillar of social development in the UAE and, recently, we have seen the adoption of a number of policies and initiatives aimed at supporting them. It was recently announced that the UAE progressed 23 places in the United Nations Development Programme, ranking first in the region and 26th globally. Also, according to a World Bank report, the UAE ranks among the top 10 economies exhibiting the most progress towards gender equality since 2017.

“It is no secret that the financial industry is a traditionally male-dominated field and, despite our undeniable progress, a 20 per cent representation of women on executive committees and 23 per cent on boards is not enough. There is still a long way to go to create an industry in which women have equal access to opportunity and positive outcomes.”

Q: What are the primary reasons for the improvement?

“Public authorities and private entities in the UAE have championed the introduction of several initiatives, programmes and agreements that foster gender equality. The efforts of organisations in the UAE towards this central goal is clear in initiatives such as the UAE’s Vision 2021, MorEquity and the Dubai Gender Balance Council.

“However, alongside nation-wide initiatives, the main driver of improvement in gender equality, specifically in the workplace, are programmes that foster and provide women with robust skills that will aid in their development.”

Q: What are the challenges facing women in the workplace in the GCC? 

“Despite the recent progress, women still face many complex challenges that hamper their ability to move up the ladder. While we have made significant strides for women in the workplace over the years, there is still much to be done – especially when looking at women in senior leadership roles.

“In the Mena region, the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has been rising, but still sits around 21.7 per cent, one of the lowest in the world. Also, when women do participate, they experience higher unemployment rates at an average of 19.8 per cent and closer to 40 per cent for young women. Additionally, the gender pay gap continues to be a particularly significant obstacle that women in the region are facing, as it was found that, on average, women in the Mena region earn 70 per cent of men’s wages.

“The challenges women face in the GCC are that of women internationally – their corporate culture will often times direct an unconscious bias towards them that hampers their ability to succeed or progress. One of the biggest obstacles that women face is found very early on, at the first step up to a management position. According to McKinsey, for every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. 

“It has been shown that women in the workforce face challenges accessing business opportunities and valuable information that will aid in the succession of their careers. This is also particularly true for women entrepreneurs.

“One of the biggest challenges women still face is the freedom of choice, including how they define their own goals and decide what they want to do, and who they want to be. Women are still expected to fill certain gender roles that, in today’s world, should no longer exist."

Q: What actions would you like to see accelerated in the workplace?

“As we gear up on the road to 2030, we can expect increased awareness and efforts to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, especially around gender equality. Unfortunately, awareness does not mean progress and what we really need is action. In order to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and support women in the path to equal opportunity and a spot in the boardroom, multiple parties need to take responsibility and, most importantly, take action.

“Government authorities must be held responsible for creating inclusive and progressive frameworks that enforce measures that foster gender equality in the workplace.

“In this sense, I am proud to say that the UAE is paving the way. However, corporations must also be held accountable for developing a gender diverse and equally opportune workplace. It’s not just about employing women, but also encouraging them to progress and supporting their success.

“Separately, a key area of opportunity for women is in digital and technology. As we become an increasingly digital society, we can expect that new technology will continue to enter the market and create new jobs and, therefore, require new skills.

“Likewise, technological platforms will enable women access to various vocational opportunities, as well as access to valuable SME and entrepreneurial markets. A great way to leverage the rise in technology is by equipping women with the necessary tools and resources needed to excel through training and education programmes.”

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