By Sasa Zuzmahowsky

Gulf countries have undoubtedly made significant strides forward over the recent years when it comes to increasing the participation of women in tertiary education and the workforce. But still, numerous reports show that the number of women advancing to senior executive and board levels within organisations in the GCC remains low. As a matter of fact, in some sectors, they are nearly invisible.

More than a hundred years ago, Kishida Toshiko, a writer, activist, and one of the first women to speak publicly about women’s rights in semi-feudal Japan, gave a famous speech to the crowd where she said, “If it is true that men are better than women because they are stronger, why aren’t our sumo wrestlers in the government?” Several thousand kilometres to the east, you can’t make the same argument in the GCC, where the sheikhs indeed run the government. And all businesses. Here the gender inequalities related to employment and promotion of women are even more amplified in comparison with the rest of the world.

According to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants’ report from January, women represent only 2% of board positions in the GCC. Women account for only 17% of all executive roles in the UAE and 7% in Qatar. Across the region only 13% of women are CEOs versus a 21% share in the developing countries with a low of 7% representing presidents of the board. The A.T. Kearney report, titled ‘Power Women in Arabia’ from 2016, reveals even more shocking results – shares of board seats held by females in the GCC countries in the same year ranged from 0.01% in Saudi Arabia to 1.7% in Kuwait. There are numerous such research studies which fortify the case for change in promoting the pathway of women into senior decision making roles, but the pace of change still seems to be slow.

Hard transition from school to work

Despite encouraging uptrend in education, research has shown that there is a significant disconnect in terms of educational success and reaching senior management roles in the GCC. One of the most crucial issues Gulf women are facing is their transition from school to work. This has been known as “leaky pipeline”, with educated female job-seekers struggling to find acceptable employment and many female graduates becoming inactive in the labour market.

For example, women in Saudi Arabia account for nearly 60% of university graduates, but less than 20% of Saudi women enter the workforce after graduation, according to Booz & Company. In Qatar, 54% of university-age women are enrolled in universities compared to only 28% of their male counterparts, according to the Qatar National Development Strategy.

This brings us to the paradox, so conspicuous for the GCC in particular, between achievements in education and their challenges in employment. This sewed relationship raises a simple question, how is it possible that women have been able to access educational institutions and were even more educated than men but employment and promotion to senior positions, particularly in the private sector, seems to be limited?

Ada Perniceni, Partner, A.T. Kearney

An important factor, which has often been neglected, is a misalignment between women’s fields of study and the requirements of the market and specific industries, contributing to the low participation of women in the workforce and low female participation in specific industries. Ada Perniceni, Middle East partner at A.T. Kearney, notes, “For example, in the energy sector women represent only 19% of the workforce worldwide. Lack of women with technical degrees (in STEM) is one of the primary factors contributing to this, a situation which may worsen as digitization and automation alter the job market in the coming years.” On a positive note, she added, Qatar with 17% of female graduates specializing in STEM, slightly outperforms the 16% global average. Governments globally are testing, with various degrees of success, education reforms and private sector incentives to raise these numbers.


When you are a woman, nothing comes easy in business. There is no single factor that explains this lower participation; it is, instead, a combination of multiple elements.  According to Pearl Initiative’s 2015 report the single most important factor holding women back, is the potential impact of their career on family life. It is the family – both positively and negatively – that determines the degree of a woman’s professional success. Reports reveal that family may be the most valuable support a woman can rely upon, but it can also be the most significant impediment to her success. The ‘family factor’ is also markedly more significant for GCC national women, compared to non-GCC nationals (77% against 67% citing family as important), which is no doubt a reflection of the strong family culture in the region, and the traditional cultural norms that are still so important here.

Carla Koffel, Executive Director, Pearl Initiative

Carla Koffel, Executive Director at Pearl Initiative, told Qatar Today that in 2015 Pearl Initiative’s report on ‘Women Careers in the GCC,’ found that the numbers of women enrolling in university courses are either the same or even higher than men, but their participation in the workforce drops off sharply, especially around mid-career (the point when many women leave to have their first child). According to the report, the problem is that so few return thereafter, which is why they make up only 38% of the workforce in the GCC, and 21% in the Middle East and North Africa region as a whole. “This pattern is common in other regions, however, in the GCC relatively fewer women make it to senior positions, because they opt out of their careers before they make it that far,” she added.

Therefore, balancing work and family life, which is a challenge for women across the world, is particularly difficult in the GCC, Koffel noted. However, Qatar as well as Kuwait do show slightly more balanced figures in this respect, where women constitute 35% of the workforce according to the 2014 Gender Gap Report. Indeed, according to most recent data from Gender Gap Report from 2016, Qatar has improved, holding 119th position globally and outpacing other countries in the region, while Saudi Arabia falls far behind.

Beside family-related factors, Perniceni told us that their study from 2016, finds that 44% of respondents identified cultural barriers and lack of support as the primary reasons for low female participation in the workforce as well as the opportunities for women’s professional development. According to Karen Young’s recent study ‘Women’s labour force participation across the GCC’, “a value system that prioritizes women’s protection and separation from both men and immorality gives the state the authority to decide how best to guard women, and how best to create safe spaces where they can work, learn, and socialize. Women’s participation in the labour force is more limited by social and cultural barriers, and even geographic mobility, as the family (and proximity to home) centres spatially in the protected sphere of women’s lives, even in states where women’s legal limitations to enter the workforce are less restrictive.”

However the impact of tradition varies across GCC countries. For example, A.T. Kearney interviews with female professionals in the UAE suggested that families and society are quite supportive, while the leadership in the workplace represents the primary limiting factor to their career progression. “On the other hand, in other countries in the region, deeply ingrained social structures and processes create an environment where limitations on female education and economic opportunities are more formalized. The responses required vary as a result of this, with some countries requiring greater efforts on behalf of the government and civil society towards public awareness, and others needing actual structural reform by the government. From a government perspective, the incentive for making such changes is high, due to the proven link between greater female labour force participation and an increase in GDP,” says Perniceni.

Another barrier highlighted by Koffel is the glass ceiling, which prevents women from moving up the corporate ladder. This is a universal challenge that women experience, where they are denied opportunities to develop their careers and be promoted on the basis of gender. It is more than evident that the gender gap in engagement emerges as employees become more senior. However, it is good to see that governments in the GCC are taking the lead in changing this and setting an example for the public and private sectors.

Are HR programmes and state policies enough?

“While state policies form one part of the solution, individual companies can play an equally important role in building a supportive environment for women.”

William Scott-Jackson, Chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting

The GCC governments have taken a number of steps to improve this situation, through HR programmes and policies and royal decrees. These states have been under pressure to nationalize their workforce, by stimulating private sector, which has been relying on foreign labour. Private-sector companies in the Gulf have an opportunity to address nationalization imperatives and local unemployment by attracting more national women into their workforce. But they have been only partly successful. Initiatives to improve female employment across the GCC are not fully reflected in Qatarisation strategies, says William Scott-Jackson, Chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting. According to their new survey report, ‘Strategic Qatarisation: Focusing on Meaningful Employment’, more than a third of organisations in Qatar (36%) either never or sometimes “actively promote female nationals” as part of their Qatarisation strategy. Qatari women represent about half of the national workforce with approximately 91,000 working-age female nationals, but Qatarisation strategies do not always engage this vital demographic segment.

He added that while the government excels in promoting women through Qatarisation programmes, most organisations can improve in this critical area. When surveyed about their Qatarisation strategies, 11% of senior business leaders in Qatar stated that they never promoted female nationals in their organisations. A further 25% of organisations stated that they only sometimes promote female nationals. Smaller organisations (250-499 employees) were significantly less likely than larger organisations (500+ employees) to actively promote female nationals. As noted, government and semi-government organisations were significantly more likely than private sector organisations to always actively promote female nationals (79% vs. 25%).

According to the Pearl Initiative on ‘Women’s Careers in the GCC: Four Good Practice Case Studies’, implementing supportive policies in the workplace is a key driver leading to more women in senior positions. According to Koffel, “While state policies form one part of the solution, individual companies can play an equally important role in building a supportive environment for women. These include practical steps such as flexible working hours and provisions for crèches.”

“In our case study report, we found that there is a lot of positive work being done by companies in the region to overcome cultural stereotypes. Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), which is one of the companies featured in our report, decided to put more focus on gender diversity to overcome the perception that women should work in care giving roles rather than in technical careers. In fact, it even developed a three-year field based development programme for women to gain experience while working on remote oil fields. Many of the women who completed this programme have continued their careers as technical operations professionals at PDO’s headquarters. Today four out of 15 directors on PDOs senior leadership team are women,” she continued.

Companies can therefore address the challenge of hiring more women in a region where it is not always considered ‘normal’ for women to work. In fact, both educational institutions and companies need to take a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating these existing challenges.

Flexibility key to successful inclusion

“A.T. Kearney research identified quality infrastructure for child care, comprehensive maternity benefits, and flexible work opportunities as critical to attract and retain female talent.”

But in order to gain and retain well educated female talent, organisations have to adapt to its female employees. Oxford Strategic Consulting research suggests that alternatives to 9 to 5 at the office, such as working from home, part-time hours, contracting, job sharing, flexi-days and hot-desking could be at least an interim solution. According to an earlier survey by Pearl Initiative, women consider flexible working hours as the most important factor that allows them to meet the competing pressures of work and family.  In addition many suggest that maternity leave and childcare options may be one of the ways to narrow the gender gap, such as introducing childcare options, maternity leave, more flexible working hours and other benefits that many enjoy in the work elsewhere.

Women perform a significantly larger portion of “unpaid work” – childcare, household management – than their male counterparts. This is one of the key challenges to female talent attraction, retention and career progression, Perniceni added. “A.T. Kearney research identified quality infrastructure for child care, comprehensive maternity benefits, and flexible work opportunities as critical to attract and retain female talent. In this regard, GCC countries have made significant progress. A prime example of this is Qatar’s 60-day maternity leave.”

Meanwhile, Koffel noted, it is also important to adapt these solutions to specific social and cultural circumstances. For example, in Saudi Arabia, companies are required to comply with gender segregation rules. “HR departments therefore need to focus on understanding and addressing the challenges that working in segregated workplaces presents. These challenges may concern the office layout, communications or more practical issues such as transportation to and from meetings.”

Meanwhile, employing more Qatari women requires effective talent pipelines, said William Scott-Jackson. For example, 47% of companies rarely undertook activities to identify potential talent early, while 50% rarely offered careers advice to nationals at schools and colleges. He noted that effective female talent pipelines require stronger links with educational institutions as well as more pragmatic techniques, such as talent spotting, ambassador programmes and internal referrals. The focus on female talent should not only target top level talent but also “second” and “third level” Qataris, those who should be trained to become leaders of the future. The most practically-minded companies should build effective talent pipelines by reaching out to female nationals often and early in addition to ensuring ample development opportunities for new entrants to the workforce or those who re-join after maternity leave or as a second wave in their careers.

But all this is easier said than done. “Austerity measures implemented across the GCC could hinder faster increase in female participation in the workforce and career progression,” Perniceni said, but added that the austerity measures are likely to be counterbalanced by the strong commitment to enhanced gender equality. “In fact, gender equality represents a national priority for the GCC countries and it is part of the national visions and plans of nearly all of them.”

Quotas dilemma

“A critical impasse is the fact that women are not ‘made’ middle managers early enough and then are not ‘trained’ to become leaders in time. There is no mention of men not being ‘board-ready’ and so these emblematic phrases are gaining mythical status.”

Najat Benchiba-Savenius, Head of Social and Economic Research, Oxford Strategic Consulting,

Finally, we could often hear that introduction of gender quotas in public/private sector and for boards and senior management could be the fastest solution to problems addressed. Whether to introduce quotas is an issue that is debated around the world. Najat Benchiba-Savenius, Head of Social and Economic Research at Oxford Strategic Consulting, in her paper ‘Woman in the board room’, finds that countries that have introduced mandatory quota systems to increase the number of women on corporate boards have found it successful. Norway, for example, is leading the way in mandating that 40% of its board seats must be filled by women. Finland is not far behind with 30%, and with France given until 2017 to fulfil its quota, it is currently estimated there are approximately 30% of women in French boardrooms. The UK has opted out of the quota system but has set its target firmly on a 25% female board representation as of last year.

So, gender quotas are a popular solution to the complex challenge of gender equality, demonstrating varied levels of success. But Perniceni explains that unintended consequences of such policies are often under-examined, and can have negative consequences even where positive progress is made. A.T. Kearney emphasizes the value of using positive policies such as voluntary company targets and public reporting of successes, and de-emphasizing obligations and sanctions in addressing the gender equality challenge. Additionally, A.T. Kearney believes that a coordinated approach carried out through collaboration between the government, the private sector and opinion influencers is the only likely means of achieving sustained progress.

“In our recent study on achieving gender parity in the energy industry in the GCC we highlighted that the debate on quotas is still open: more than 55% of survey respondents believe gender targets should be set for the board and senior leadership positions while only 25% believe quotas should be enforced,” she added.

However, numbers are only part of the issue. The real benefits of women on the board come from their capable, intelligent contributions, which are best achieved through promotion on the basis of gender-agnostic merit, Benchiba-Savenius said in her paper that attaining board-ready status early on is essential. “A critical impasse is the fact that women are not ‘made’ middle managers early enough and then are not ‘trained’ to become leaders in time. The fact remains that women are under-represented in most tiers of their developing careers and it is to the detriment to corporations and organisations alike. There is no mention of men not being ‘board-ready’ and so these emblematic phrases are gaining mythical status. The same can be said for the lack of female presence in the coveted C-Suite roles whereby there is a huge gulf of talent and a lack of diversity across ethnicity and gender,” she continued.

After all, the most important thing is to create a corporate culture that is inclusive and supportive rather than discriminatory, Koffel noted. Creating this environment is critical as it enables personal growth and allows employees to focus on their work performance and take on new challenges. Ultimately, there is no universal model for implementing gender parity. “No two companies are the same and companies and their senior management teams therefore must work to identify the unique challenges that apply to them and then take necessary steps, and adapt best practices, to address them,” she concluded.