Countries that have introduced mandatory quota systems to increase the number of women on corporate boards would suggest that employing a quota system has been successful.
Norway, for example, is leading the way in mandating that 40 per cent of its board seats must be filled by women. Finland is not far behind at 30 per cent, and with France given until 2017 to fulfil its quota, it is currently estimated to be about 30 per cent in French boardrooms.
The UK has opted out of the quota system but has set its target firmly on a 25 per cent female board representation as of last year. However, no FTSE 100 company is yet to reach gender parity despite all the gains made in recent years to improve the number of females in the boardroom, particularly as the percentage of female directors has risen to 18 per cent, while the number in executive jobs is a lowly 4.6 per cent, and has remained unchanged since 2011.
Japan has no quota system in place and with less than 2 per cent of women on Japanese boards, improvement is needed. In fact, Japan’s prime minister has stated that he wishes to empower women and promote higher inclusion rates in corporate positions with a swing to 30 per cent of all leadership positions filled by women by 2020.
While it is commendable that Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, issued a law obliging all government departments and related companies to have female representation on their boards, there is still room for improvement across all sectors.
Diversity or tokenism?
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. If there were opportunities for strong, career-minded women to enter an apprenticeship of sorts by way of work experience on a board for a year before the role is passed on to another promising female, this could provide a much-needed catalyst in this hotly-debated arena. This would enable bottom-line real impact to corporates, charities and organisations where real change can be engineered and sustained and optimises performance in real terms.
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. We could argue the usual suspects are impeding the development of women in their careers such as family, work-life balance but this cannot really be blamed for much longer. Companies that allow for greater diversity currently enjoy greater profit margins and more success than their mono-gendered straitjacketed counterparts. This makes for poor corporate strategy and short-sightedness, but the good news is that this is changing.
How the GCC can take charge
In the GCC, there are many extremely influential and capable women at the top levels of major organisations. On the face of it, this is because many have inherited the leadership of family businesses, but our research also finds certain key advantages which bode well for the possibility of the GCC leading the world in female board representation.
Firstly, in general, GCC males respect the business and leadership capabilities of women and resistance to women taking business roles is more to do with a false desire to protect and defend women’s dignity. Secondly, the Gulf leadership style, which we have researched for several years, is based on relationships, mutual obligations, respect and cooperation, rather than the more individualistic and highly competitive leadership models prevalent elsewhere. This style is more easily adapted to encompass the development and full utilisation of female talent. Lastly, the nurturing and development of female leaders within family businesses provides great models for similar development of female talent in the national populations at large.
The GCC would do well to take charge and pave the way in increasing women in the boardroom, and mentoring young undergraduates on to a positive career path.
Najat Benchiba-Savenius is head of social and economic research at Oxford Strategic Consulting, which specialises in building human capital across the GCC and Europe