Still Too Few Female Executives in GCC States

Barriers to female leadership addressed in report

By Dana Wilkie February 20, 2015

When Huda Al-Ghoson oversaw housing policy for oil giant Saudi Aramco in the early 1990s, a Saudi worker she supervised asked to be transferred out of her unit. His reason: If his family knew that his boss was a woman, he would be ridiculed and perhaps asked to divorce his wife.

“I said, ‘Absolutely, let the guy move out,’ ” Al-Ghoson said in an interview in the February 2015 issue of McKinsey Quarterly, a publication of global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “I don’t want to be responsible for a divorce.”

Such attitudes are among the challenges that working women in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states face as they take on leadership roles at public- and private-sector organizations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Female representation in top GCC management positions—on executive committees and boards—is less than 1 percent, compared with 10 percent on executive committees and 17 percent on boards in European countries.

A recent McKinsey report examines the barriers to women becoming professional leaders in GCC organizations. The report, based on a survey of 550 middle and senior managers and interviews with 50 senior executives in GCC states, found that companies with three or more women in senior management scored higher on nine dimensions of organizational effectiveness, including motivation, accountability, innovation and capability. It also found that half of GCC men believe having women in leadership is “very important” for an organization to be effective, while 80 percent of GCC women feel the same.

“There is a general perception across organizations that women apply people development, inspiration, efficient communication and participatory decision-making slightly more often than men do, while men apply individualistic decision-making as well as control and corrective action more often than women do, with no or little difference between the genders observed in the dimensions of intellectual stimulation, expectations and rewards, or role-modeling,” wrote the authors of the report GCC Women inLeadership—From the First to the Norm. The research was conducted in the summer of 2014.

In short, there seems to be the perception that when an executive woman works alongside an executive man in GCC companies, one complements the leadership strengths of the other. The pair then provides a greater diversity of ideas and perspectives, and their combined leadership styles tend to improve team dynamics. ​

As one senior manager in the United Arab Emirates told the report authors: “Women are more likely to solicit input—they are more eager to ensure everyone is with them, that they have buy-in. Men have a much easier time making calls quickly, and giving top-down direction. It’s best to have a combination.”

Interviewees said that when it came to decision-making at their organizations, female leaders tended to be more aware of organizational implications and potential stakeholder reactions to decisions than men were, while men tended to maintain a more technical focus.

“In settings with my fellow male colleagues, it’s often very dry, and the attitude is ‘This is what we need to do, let’s go and do it,’ ” a senior, public-sector official in Bahrain told the authors. “In settings with females, there are a lot more observations on other dimensions, especially people dimensions and the organizational impact of decisions.”

Challenges to Female Leadership

One of the biggest reasons for the dearth of female leaders in GCC organizations is the cultural barrier to women working in demanding careers, or even working at all.

Women’s participation in the labor force in GCC states is low—about 32 percent of the workforce is female, compared with 51 percent in Europe. Even though Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have higher participation rates individually—43 percent, 51 percent and 47 percent respectively—this is partly because of the high number of expatriate women in these labor forces, the report said.

Survey respondents also cited what the authors called “the double-burden syndrome” as a huge barrier to more women becoming leaders. The term reflects the responsibilities of being both a family caretaker and a professional leader. In the GCC states, a widely embraced view remains that women are “less committed to continuous, long-term careers than men are,” and there is the tendency “to give disproportionate weight to experiences or observations that confirm negative assumptions about women,” they wrote.

One senior manager in the oil and gas industry in the United Arab Emirates told the authors this: “You hear biases in the way men talk about female employees … ‘Why should I invest in her, when she will only leave as soon as she gets married?’ They feel they need to have a ‘backup man’ in case the woman quits.”

Insufficient HR policies to support women in leadership roles are also a problem in GCC states, the study said.

“Lack of formal, clear HR policies to ensure equal opportunities and entitlements—hiring, promotion, salaries and benefits, as well as behavior—is a major issue,” a director of a charity in Saudi Arabia told the authors. “HR departments are still developing at a lot of organizations in this region.”


The report spelled out some practical steps that senior leaders can take to support women in leadership roles in the GCC states. They included:

  • Tracking the share of women at each stage in the corporate pipeline—within each business unit and function, as well as the percentage who are promoted, the percentage eligible for promotion, the attrition rates of men and women at each level, and the compensation packages for men and women at all levels.
  • Offering company-provided or company-facilitated transportation and child care. This “can be a critical enabler,” the authors wrote, “especially in situations where a woman’s family is not living close by or is not supportive of her dedicating significant parts of her life to her career.”
  • Offering women part-time tracks or options to temporarily work part time after having children, and then to rotate back into full-time work, to prevent women from becoming “derailed” from the leadership track.
  • Creating transparent HR policies stipulating equal opportunities and compensation for men and women with equivalent qualifications and experience. “Even when pay is equal on paper, men often get paid a lot more,” one Saudi business executive told the authors. “We need to create transparency for women on what they should expect in terms of positions and compensation.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.



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