Influential women can make a transformative difference in a company, industry or even a nation. When women are leaders, they are more likely to contribute to education, health and community development programs in the areas where they work and live, according to Mercer's "When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive" report.
Despite the positive benefits women leaders bring to businesses and communities, female decision-makers remain difficult to find in leading financial firms around the world. Women are also significantly underrepresented on the leadership teams of companies that receive investment capital. A new report from Oliver Wyman (part of MMC group of companies) shows that globally, women hold 20% of positions in executive committees and 23% on boards, but only 6% of CEOs in financial institutions are women.
However, in the Middle East — traditionally one of the most challenging regions for female leaders to scale — women are gradually being named to leadership positions in the region's financial sector.1 As women make their mark in Middle Eastern finance and, in turn, their communities and region, business leaders around the world should take notice.
Women Leaders in Middle East Finance
The growing number of influential women in Middle Eastern finance includes those working in banks, investment firms, financial law and consulting companies.1 For instance, in September 2018, Ms. Rola Abu Manneh was named CEO of Standard Chartered UAE, becoming the first Emirati woman to lead a bank in the UAE. With a long experience in UAE banking, Ms. Abu Manneh has the knowledge and leadership competencies to bring important business to her bank. In her first year as CEO, she has already advised Dubai-based Emaar Properties on the sale of its hotels to Abu Dhabi National Hotels.2
Ms. Rania Nashar is another great example — she is the first female CEO of Saudi commercial bank, Samba Financial Group, one of the largest in the region. Ms. Nashar has over 20 years of experience in the commercial banking sector and was named CEO in 2017, becoming the first female CEO of a listed Saudi Arabian bank.3 That was also a moment when Saudi Arabia began implementing reforms to promote gender equality as part of the KSA's Vision 2030, and Ms. Nashar says she wants to continue doing more.
"I have to not only prove to myself that a bank of Samba's size can be run by a female CEO — and can achieve the best results in its history — I have to prove it for all the women in Saudi Arabia and in the world," Ms. Nashar notes. "I hope that I can be an honourable portrait for Saudi women."4
Ms. Lubna Olayan is also an influential leader in Saudi Arabia. For more than 30 years, she was the CEO of Olayan Financing Company, the holding company through which The Olayan Group's trading, real estate, investment, consumer and industrial-related operations are conducted in the Gulf region. She has received numerous awards and recognition, including landing in Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, Fortune's list of Most Powerful Women and recognized as a champion of women's economic empowerment.5
Why Gender-Balanced Leadership Matters
Women leaders such as these are helping to advance and make a shift in the gender balance in the region's financial sector. While they represent progress, there is still much to be done. Governments are working to increase the gender balance but transforming the mindsets of business leaders and overcoming bias is a slow process.
However, it's a process worth pursuing. For organizations and nations that are facing workforce challenges, an underutilized female workforce represents a strategic opportunity to compete, grow and win, helping to transform the entire economy.
According to Mercer's "When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive" report, women's essential roles as providers, caretakers, decision-makers and consumers make them instrumental in the education and health of future generations, as well as the development of their communities. Women leaders can also be instrumental in building stronger and more collaborative teams; retaining, developing and nurturing talent; and bringing a diverse and new perspective for organizations.
In fact, the Mercer report also shows that increased participation from women in the workforce has implications for the economic and social development of communities and nations. Economists have calculated that eliminating the gap between male and female employment rates could significantly boost gross domestic product by 5% in the United States, 9% in Japan, 12% in the United Arab Emirates and 34% in Europe.
Achieving Gender Equity in Underrepresented Sectors
Finding the right approach for sourcing and engaging female talent depends on the individual company's culture and needs, but there are some broad strategies that may be effective globally. Mercer research shows that the chief building blocks for achieving gender diversity are health, financial well-being and talent management elements.
Health concerns are of special significance to the female population, as women are affected by different health issues and illnesses than men, and they experience and use the healthcare system in different ways than men.
For example, there are gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women, affecting their capacity to be productive at work. Unipolar depression, a leading factor of working disability, is twice as common in women than in men.6
To achieve gender equity in business, companies must make healthcare available to women in the ways they most need, including:
1. Flexibility for maternity leave
2. Physical health, wellness and mental health support
3. More autonomy and access to health resources
4. Psychological support for severe life events
5. Confidential medical support dedicated for women
2. Financial Well-being
Women reportedly have greater financial responsibility and greater financial stress than men. According to a 2018 study conducted by Prudential, the average woman has saved less for retirement compared to the average man. Only 54% of women have put aside money for retirement, and on average, they have saved $115,412. By contract, 61% of men have saved for retirement, and on average, they have saved $202,859. This greatly increases the likelihood of a woman living in poverty in retirement and is exacerbated by women's longer life expectancies.7
To address this, organizations need to ensure that women receive fair financial compensation, greater coaching and educational support in planning for their financial futures, tailored retirement options for women, and encouragement for systematic and regular contributions to savings and retirement accounts.
3. Talent Management
Women need opportunities for advancement, as well as training and development opportunities. In addition, they also need flexible work options that make it possible for them to fulfill other essential roles outside of work.
Attention to management positions are critical to further improve the gender participation in executive levels. These jobs are usually high demanding in working hours, requiring management of teams, clients and superiors. For women who achieve such positions, it may also coincide with motherhood period, making it even more challenging if companies do not provide adequate working arrangements — such as flexible working options leveraging technology, childcare support, mentoring and leadership support for women, business resource groups and diversity and inclusion efforts and training.
Women in the workforce have an undeniable power to make meaningful contributions and expand businesses. When financial institutions and governments begin to focus on the strategies required to get talented women working and leading, they will begin to see positive results. Not only can influential women bring business acumen to help grow organizations, but their roles in societies also enable them to make significant improvements in education, communities and the transformation of countries.
1. "The 50 Most Influential Women in Middle East Finance," Financial News, 29 Apr. 2019, https://www.fnlondon.com/articles/the-50-most-influential-women-in-middle-east-finance-20190429.
2. "FN 50 Middle East Women 2019," Financial News, 2019,https://lists.fnlondon.com/fn50/women_in_finance_/2019/?mod=lists-profile.
3. "Rania Nashar," Forbes, 2018,https://www.forbes.com/profile/rania-nashar/#20d8136e473c.
4. Masige, Sharon. "Raising the Bar: Rania Nashar," The CEO Magazine, 27 Jun. 2019,https://www.theceomagazine.com/executive-interviews/finance-banking/rania-nashar/
5. "Lubna Olayan Retires as CEO of Olayan Financing Co.; Jonathan Franklin Named New CEO," Olayan, 29 Apr. 2019, https://olayan.com/lubna-olayan-retires-ceo-olayan-financing-co-jonathan-franklin-named-new-ceo.
6. "Gender and Women's Mental Health: The Facts," World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/#:~:targetText=Unipolar%20depression%2C%20predicted%20to%20be,persistent%20in%20women%20than%20men.
7. "The Cut: Exploring Financial Wellness Within Diverse Populations," Prudential, 2018, http://news.prudential.com/content/1209/files/PrudentialTheCutExploringFinancialWellnessWithinDiversePopulations.pdf.