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Employing women in the workplace is not just about filling gender diversity quotas; female business leaders actually enhance a company's financial performance, asserts a new study.
A report by Credit Suisse Research, released in August this year, found that large companies (with a market cap of over $10 billion) with women board members outperformed those without women board members by 26 per cent in terms of share price performance over the past six years.
For small-to-mid cap companies, those with women on the board outperformed those without by 17 per cent over the same period.
The study further discovered that firms with female board members enjoy a higher return on equity, less debt, higher valuation and better average growth.
Despite the increasing importance being given to women in the workplace across the world, the gender landscape in the GCC remains biased towards men.
Female labour participation in the region stands at just 26.9 per cent, much lower than the global average of 51.7 per cent, states a recent report by Al Masah Capital.
Although women comprise 41 per cent of the region's overall population, they account for just 16 per cent of the workforce. The report further reveals that 73 per cent of employable women in the GCC are jobless, as compared to around 17 per cent of employable men.
The challenges that women face in the region are numerous, explained Abdul Wahab Al-Halabi, lead partner of Family Groups at KPMG Lower Gulf.
"Firstly, there is a natural Asian cultural adversity to females in the workspace, maybe a bit more so than the West. And the West had to go through this journey 30 years ago as well. So you always have this cultural barrier."
A natural stigma against women travelling is another problem, he said.
The third issue that women faced, especially in the past, was that most traditional businesses in the region, especially in places like the UAE, were focused on trade or industry, with a predominance of construction, real estate, trading, oil and gas and other heavy industries.
These are sectors where culturally, it has been harder for women to operate, said Al-Halabi. But things have changed drastically in the last ten years.
According to the Al Masah report, approximately 1.5 million women in the GCC joined the labour force between 2001 and 2010. The total number of working women in the region increased 83 per cent, at a CAGR of 6.9 per cent to 3.3 million in 2010 from 1.8 million in 2001.
Al-Halabi attributes this increase primarily to education.
"If you look at the number of women who came out of university in the nineties, and compare it with 2000 onwards, there has been a big shift.
"As the Higher Colleges of Technology [in the UAE] and other universities started to make a presence here, it had a big impact on the education and labour landscape. In the past, women had to travel overseas to get decent tertiary education, but now you can get that over here," said Al-Halabi.
In fact, the majority of students passing out from the Higher Colleges of Technology are now females. The adult literacy rate among women (in the 15+ age group) in the GCC stands at 84 per cent, states the Al Masah report.
"These girls are going to come into the workspace and take up careers and more and more of them will become high- fliers," he said.
According to Raja Al Gurg, president of the Dubai Business Women Council and managing director of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, education also helps remove cultural barriers that women face in society.
"The UAE society is patriarchal but we have already seen a moderate change from the previous restrictive traditional attitudes towards women in the workplace," she said.
"Change and modernisation can only come gradually from within our society, but the cultural constraints placed on women can be removed through education and public enlightenment," she added.
Along with increasing education, improving technology is also playing a big role in encouraging women to work, stated Al-Halabi.
"IT has been a big boon. Massive improvement in technology and communication has helped women network and connect better. While cultural reasons don't permit them to travel much, now they have the option of video conferencing or conducting Skype calls.
"Also, since the UAE itself has become a business hub, many meetings happen in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, which removes the necessity of travelling abroad," he said.
The country has also moved towards becoming a service-oriented industry, enabling women to operate in sectors where they tend to be more comfortable such as finance, marketing and retail, Al-Halabi added.
But Al Gurg states that with greater awareness and knowledge, women have now branched out into diverse fields including engineering, science, healthcare, media, and the oil industry.
"Work is increasingly being seen not merely as a source of income but as part of establishing a personal as well as professional identity," she said.
These days, most women also receive family support and gain respect in the community as they take on career roles, Al Gurg added.
Al-Halabi agrees. "Thanks to the socially cohesive structure in the UAE, we tend to find that family members support the traditional role of women in the family. So children tend to get raised by grandparents, allowing a woman to have a career as well."
But acceptance and change in society are gradual, he admits.
And unlike the West, where women have been empowered through laws that discourage discrimination, this region has no regulations or quotas.
"We don't have such rules or laws here that force companies to hire females or promote them. But when you start to make quotas yes, you will fill the positions. But will you fill it with the right people?
"In our region, because women are naturally going up the ranks, the acceptance would be deeper than the West," he said.
"This natural evolution towards female leadership in the workplace is going to have profound impact on our GDP in the future," Al Halabi added.