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Barriers to female leadership addressed in report
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
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
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.”
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
Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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