Time is right for women to make their mark in GCC consultancy

With high levels of investment and a desire to seize new opportunities in the global economy, there’s plenty of work for GCC consultants to do. But consulting firms, like many other organisations in the region, find recruitment a struggle.

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With high levels of investment and a desire to seize new opportunities in the global economy, there is plenty of work for GCC consultants to do. But consulting firms, like many other organisations in the region, find recruitment a struggle: there simply aren’t enough high-calibre consultants to go around.

Against this backdrop women play an increasingly crucial role. In most GCC countries women represent a better-educated talent pool compared with men, and this year Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, affirmed the UAE’s focus on gender equality with the launch of the Gender Balance Council.

A recent survey by Pearl Initiative, a regional not-for-profit organisation, found that although more than 50 per cent of working women in the region were aiming at senior or board-level positions, about 75 per cent still felt they were not treated equally in their workplaces. The study, which polled more than 600 businesswomen, revealed that the number of women moving to senior executive and board levels within organisations in the GCC remained low.

Management consulting offers its own challenges: demanding work, the need to spend time away from home and the difficulty of balancing work and home. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, while women are joining the industry in unprecedentedly high numbers, those who stay are rare.

Recent research that my company, Source Information Services, undertook with nbi, a human capital consulting firm, found that barriers remain to increasing the number of women in senior positions across the global consulting industry. Our report, based on interviews with women at partner/board level from large consulting firms, argues that, despite initiatives designed to ensure that gender diversity works well at more junior levels, women who are looking to become partners are still ­disadvantaged.

“Performance is simply what gets you in the room,” said one interviewee. “You have to have top grades to become a principal but, when it comes to promotion to partner, everyone is in the top or second band, which means that the objective component has been removed and the subjective takes precedence.”

Only a quarter of those interviewed said that they had not encountered gender bias.

It is a story that chimes with women’s experience in the Arabian Gulf region. More senior women need sponsors, people who are prepared to promote their interests and be advocates on their behalf. Sponsors don’t need to be women – in the GCC’s male-dominated consulting boards it’s often an advantage to have a male sponsor, who understands how the rules work.

But more needs to be done to demonstrate the importance of “soft” skills, such as good communication and team management, in a consulting environment. Occasions when women can bring family members into their workplace can help a woman’s ability to get support at home to pursue a career at work.

Most women don’t think quotas are a good approach, although aspirational targets for gender diversity within an organisation are valuable. Quotas may accelerate the process of change – this is certainly what some countries, such as Norway with its recent drive to increase the number of women in senior positions, have found – but at the cost of the level playing field. Women who think they have been promoted to fill a quota may feel devalued.

More female role models are essential. Many of the women who have made it to senior positions in consulting firms either don’t have children or have husbands at home to help with family life – whereas the reality for most female consultants is that they’re still expected to run the house and be responsible for childcare.

Female consultants in the GCC have a bright future. With more support at home and at work, we shall see a new generation of women making it to the top.

Fiona Czerniawska is founder of UK-based Source Information Services, which has a Dubai office and has published reports on the GCC consulting market since 2012