Life lessons: How boardrooms stack up on gender diversity

As we have seen on the ground level and at a leadership level, the UAE has been pushing the boundaries when it comes to female representation in the region.

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'Most of my team are women" were the words posted to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's Instagram account on International Women's Day last month. He then called on leaders across the UAE to celebrate the women in their teams. It was then that I started thinking of the role women play at a leadership level in organisations across the country, more specifically the capital.

The UAE has always had a strong mandate towards gender equality, which has delivered incredible results, with women outpacing men in both secondary and higher education. Women now hold eight seats – a little over a quarter – of the UAE’s 30-member Federal Cabinet. In 2015, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi was appointed President of the Federal National Council, making her the first woman in the region to lead a national assembly. In 2008, the first female judge was sworn in, with four women being appointed as judges since. Women also make up 20 per cent of the UAE’s diplomatic corps, and in 2013, Lana Nusseibeh became the UAE’s first permanent representative to the United Nations.

As we have seen on the ground level and at a leadership level, the UAE has been pushing the boundaries when it comes to female representation in the region. However, I want to focus on one specific area – female board members. According to a study by Credit Suisse, the global average of women on boards stands at approximately 14.7 per cent. I visited the “Departments” tab of the Abu Dhabi Government website, which lists more than 100 entities that are in some way affiliated with the government. I then included major financial institutions and airlines, which I believe are driving forces behind the UAE’s economy, and removed several “Departments of”, such as the Department of Finance, because they did not have a board and report directly to Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council.

In the end I was left with about 58 organisations, which I believe represents a strong enough sample size, and the average number of female board members across those organisations came up to 7.77 per cent – approximately half the global average. There are, however, specific outliers, including the media sector, namely Abu Dhabi Media Company and twofour54, where women make up an average of 29 per cent of the board seats, and in organisations such as Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and Emirates Red Crescent Society, women occupy 23.5 per cent of the board seats. The three entities with the largest female representation were the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development and twofour54, with 33 per cent each, and the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (Executive Committee) at 30 per cent. The common denominator across these organisations is that women have been strongly affiliated with the development and leadership of these organisations for some time now.

On the other end of the spectrum are the large financial institutions and airlines, where women have almost no presence in the boardroom. According to research by MSCI ESG, this could have a negative effect on the financial and strategic performance of an organisation. The report, which focused on women’s presence on boards, found that companies with a strong female presence generated a 10.1 per cent return on equity, almost 3 per cent higher than firms with little or no female representation. Furthermore, companies that lacked gender diversity were more likely to face governance­-related problems.

I find myself wondering why women are under-represented in some sectors. It can’t be cultural: our leaders have made it a point to ensure that women play a critical role in day-to-day decisions at the highest levels. It can’t be strategic, as numerous studies have shown that women being present on a board leads to positive returns. It’s not because we don’t have women with the necessary experience or skills. So what am I missing?

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.