How the UAE's women flourish even in a man's world

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE's Minister for Foreign Trade, holds the distinction of being the first woman to hold a ministerial portfolio in the Gulf. Here she evaluates the prospects for women in the male-dominated financial industry.

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister for Foreign Trade, says the UAE is the best place for women to pursue a career in financial services. Randi Sokoloff / The National
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Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE's Minister for Foreign Trade, holds the distinction of being the first woman to hold a ministerial portfolio in the Gulf. Here she evaluates the prospects for women in the male-dominated financial industry.

Why are so few women attracted to a career in financial services?

There are many factors behind this phenomenon. Some women find that the long hours associated with financial services work prevent them from fulfilling their family duties. Others lament the compensation and career development gaps that they feel favour men. There is also a fear that female-related concerns, such as going on maternity leave, could result in the loss of promotions, pay rises and other opportunities. Moreover, many women are caught up in the stereotype that, like the technical fields, the financial services sector is a world designed exclusively for men.

What can companies do to both attract more women and ensure that they are supported as they progress into senior positions?

Financial services firms should closely review their corporate culture and determine if it fosters equal opportunities for men and women. Any gaps should be addressed via effective measures such as schemes for mentoring, training and supporting women, policies that emphasise equality, and reward schemes that recognise best employees regardless of gender. Companies should clearly send out the message that their organisation encourages, supports and recognises women achievers. Cultivating a corporate mindset that fosters equal opportunities for both sexes will make it easier for women to aspire to and undergo the transition to senior positions.

Governments, companies, associations and councils are all focusing on advancing women in business, but limited real progress is being made, especially in the private sector. Is there an opportunity for better collaboration, and if so, what could that look like?

Collaboration will need to start from the top. If the government shows a genuine concern for empowering women, then the concerned agencies, the private sector and the general public will follow suit.

Here in the UAE, for example, government has made great strides in improving the representation of women in the public sector and making us a leader in women’s rights in the Arab world. Emirati women, in fact, now account for more than 60 per cent of the government workforce.

This confidence in our abilities has had a spillover effect on the private sector, as our country now has the largest number of businesswomen in the region. A 2011 index of women in business in the Gulf shows UAE women topping the region in terms of business ownership, business and government leadership, workforce participation, regular employment opportunities, and education.

Of course, leading by example is not enough. There should be concrete programs for advancing women’s roles in business. Government should be vocal in encouraging private businesses to enhance the role of women within their ranks and make the workplace as gender-neutral as possible. Private companies in turn could coordinate with Government in reaching out to women through campaigns or sharing women-related information and statistics.

A good collaborative system would be one where communication channels between government and corporations are open, extensive and transparent.

We must also keep in mind that women in the UAE prefer government work due to its working hours, which allows them to both have a career and also focus on their home and children.

International practices include quota systems and reporting requirements for the number and skills held by individuals on boards. Should similar practices be considered in the UAE, or more broadly, GCC?

Women are typically under-represented in the boardrooms of financial services firms. A 2011 census of women executive officers of Fortune 500 companies estimates that women account for around 18.4 [per cent] of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries. Clearly there is a lot of ground to cover as women have more than enough expertise and capability to handle executive responsibilities.

While quotas are set by law in some countries, I believe this should not be the go-to solution for the UAE and the region, in general. As a woman, I would prefer to attain my position by real merit rather than always wonder if I was appointed to the board just to hit a quota or through affirmative action.

As I have mentioned earlier, it would be better for government and businesses to work hand-in-hand in strongly encouraging and supporting more female participation within the private sector, and for companies to create environments that are more conducive to gender-neutral excellence. Perhaps some incentive schemes can be put into place, but again, I would prefer that women motivate themselves. The focus should be more on creating a fair environment for them in terms of mechanisms such as training and consideration for roles on the corporate board.

Why should women join financial services in the UAE? What are the advantages?

The UAE is the region’s most dynamic economy, so what better place for women to pursue a career [than] in financial services? Banks and financial institutions here continue to launch campaigns specifically geared at attracting women to key positions; the industry is very welcoming towards women.

In fact, Emirati women account for more than 67 [per cent] of the local banking sector’s employees and 43 per cent of total bank jobs. Financial services is considered one of the most important economic sectors in the UAE so there is a strong enthusiasm among women to join the field.

Women also finance a third of transactions in the UAE's financial and banking sector, so there is a strong affinity between this line of business and women.

What are the specific skills and leadership capabilities that women should possess to ensure a successful career in financial services?

In terms of skills, it would of course be critical to have solid academic and practical backgrounds in areas such as investment banking and securities, commercial banking, accounting, financial analysis and management, and the likes.
Women are known for their attention to detail, strong interpersonal skills, persuasiveness and adaptability to adversity, all of which are important to financial services. They know when to take risks and when to strategise. They just have to harness these innate abilities in the field of financial services.

In terms of leadership, women already have strong decision-making skills since we are acutely aware of how our actions can impact the lives of others. Women eyeing leadership roles in financial services have to be assertive within a domain that as I have said is believed to be mostly for men, and cultivate legitimacy and credibility within their firms.

What should a female professional in financial services do to have a successful career?

One strategy is to determine the things that you are passionate about in your job.

Achieving a sense of satisfaction from work will provide huge resources of energy for a woman to fulfil her duties. Another is to constantly create relationships across the organisation and its partners and clients. A female professional should also play to the natural strengths of her gender.

These are just some of the basic approaches. The reality is that there is no magic formula for ensuring a successful career. Strategies can change over time as new challenges and additional elements come into play. The key is to tailor whatever resources and traits are available to a woman's career ambitions, situation and personality. Women have exceptional levels of patience, focus, sensitivity and decision making so they have the power to make their careers work.

What role models do you have, and how have those individuals influenced your career as a business woman?

There are a lot of people that have served as role models for me, not only for business but for life.

My late father taught me at an early age to constantly explore the world and strive to learn new things. My mother told me not to set limits to what I could achieve as a woman but never to turn my back on my heritage and my identity.

I have my uncle, H. H. Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council member and ruler of Sharjah, [who] often reminded me that quality education would assure my path to fulfillment and success.

It was my beloved mentor, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who really recognised my potential as a businesswoman. He was the person who appointed me as CEO of Tejari, the Middle East’s first and foremost electronic business-to-business marketplace.

And then, of course, I owe a lot of my leadership skills and love for my country and its people to our late president and the Father of the UAE, H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. I have also enjoyed the same level of guidance, respect and support from his son, our current leader, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

To read the detailed report on women in financial services visit

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