Women in UAE companies' boardrooms: how it all really works

The Life: Sara Khoja, employment lawyer at Clyde & Co in Dubai, provides some clarification about the UAE Cabinet's rule that every company should have at least one woman on its board.

Sara Khoja of Clyde & Co says only government-owned entities will be required to have a woman on their boards. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Last month, the UAE Cabinet ruled there should be a woman on every board in the Emirates. Sara Khoja, an employment lawyer and partner at Clyde & Co, provides an update on how this ruling is likely to be implemented.

What clarifications have there been?

When it was first announced there was a lot of excitement because [it seemed] that every company in the UAE was going to have a woman on the board. But it's more limited than that. It's government-owned entities. It's not going to affect the private sector.

And by women it means Emirati women?


And will there be a ratio?

It is at least one woman but if you've got 10 people on the board there is going to be a ratio required as well. That hasn't been clarified but that's what we think. When new laws are passed they get published in the gazette that everyone then accesses. Some decisions don't get published because they only affect the public sector.

Is there a date when the decision comes into force?

There wasn't one announced. [To know that] depends on seeing a write-up of the Cabinet decision.

Are there enough qualified women?

That's a really big issue. I am sure if you sat down with a board of directors that was all men they would sincerely say: 'We just haven't had the candidates. It's not that we are deliberately making the decision that we don't want women on the board.' It's certainly not direct discrimination [and] there are probably structural issues that really need to be looked at. [Research in the United Kingdom shows] these roles don't tend to be advertised. So how do you know about them if you are a woman who isn't [tapped] into certain networks?

Is sitting on a board a big job?

Yes. Especially if it is a listed company. [But] there is a difference between executive directors - such as the chief finance officer and chief executive who are involved in the day-to-day running of the company - and non-executive directors, who have a more diverse background and experience and are there to provide independent checks and balances. It's been pointed out that there is more scope for women to be non-executive directors. In the UAE, the interesting question is: where are they going to find the women to sit on the boards? At lot of these women - and this is probably true for the men as well - are very, very young candidates. Which can be great and very invigorating. But then the question mark is: do they actually have the experience to take on these roles?

Would you advocate targets versus quotas?

The advantage of quotas is that … we've been trying to address this issue for the past 10 to 15 years and the numbers of women coming through are just not high enough to really make a difference. [Other UK research showed] that at this rate of improvement of women being appointed it would take 70 years for the numbers to get on par. It seems to be that the only way to do it quickly is to do it with quotas.