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Women on listed UAE boards: From 3.5% to 8.9% in two years, our research report shows

Gender-inclusive language & plain communication toolkit cover image. Text says: 'Non-executive board careers in the UAE: A path to gender balance. Download our free research report'. Image of front cover of report by Aurora50, Mohammed Bin Rashed School of Government and sponsored by ADNOC is shown, with AgileGov logo.
Suzanne Locke 16 June 2022
The UAE’s continued efforts to improve gender diversity in the boardroom have led to more women holding board positions this year (8.9 percent), up from 3.5 percent in 2020, according to research undertaken by Aurora50 and Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government (MBRSG).
The report, Non-executive Board Careers in the UAE: A Path to Gender Balance, sponsored by ADNOC, reveals that 77 of the 868 board seats on the 115 listed companies on the Dubai Financial Market (DFM) and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX) are now held by women.
Last year, the Emirates Securities and Commodities Authority (ESCA) set a quota for all listed companies to put at least one woman on their boards by 2025.

It is good, solid progress in just two years – but how can we accelerate it? What can organisations do to help put more women on boards? And how can women themselves clear the pathway to the board?

We started by setting the landscape of progress in the UAE and internationally. For instance, in 2021 the world was led by France, with 44 percent of board positions held by women, according to global data company BoardEx.
Regionally, Deloitte reports that in 2021, women in Saudi Arabia held 1.7 per cent of board seats; in Qatar, 1.2 percent of seats. In nearby India, women held more than 17 percent of seats and chaired 3.6 percent of boards.

While women need to be passionate about their technical area of expertise, they should also strategically plan the career they wish to have.

A 10-year timeline to the board

Then we interviewed 16 seasoned female board directors – a group we call Manarat+, as most came from Aurora50’s invite-only club of regional women directors, Manarat.
Mostly our interviewees had progressed via company subsidiary boards to executive management and executive director seats before ultimately becoming independent, non-executive directors (NEDs).
Every director interviewed was clear that a woman had a responsibility to develop herself. If she does so, her timeline to become a non-executive board director is around 10-15 years, creating greater age diversity as well as gender diversity on boards.
If this career path is used strategically by women, and early in their careers, we believe it will reduce their timeline to reaching independent board director roles to a decade or even less.

As one woman told us: “While women need to be passionate about their technical area of expertise, they should also strategically plan the career they wish to have.”

More, she said, needed to aspire to the so-called ‘C-suite’ of top management positions to make a board position “more attainable”. Another said that investing in herself was part of her personal career plan.

Five steps to the top

We believe there are five steps that will take an aspiring woman through to her first non-executive board director appointments in 10-15 years or less: 1) plan; 2) build; 3) brand; 4) sustain; and 5) give.
  1. In the planning stage, she will hone her technical competencies and industry expertise, hone her independent thinking and develop the specific governing skills vital to board directors.
  2. As she builds her career, she will develop soft skills, establish career networks and craft valuable experiences to make her board-ready
  3. In the branding stage, her strategy should be to create awareness of who she is (and that she is board-ready), and leverage network relationships to grow her brand. She should know when to ask for help, rather than waiting for good performance to shine through, and how to track her progress annually.
  4. As she looks to sustain her career, she should look to her priorities, managing trade-offs to keep a good work/ life balance as her duties grow in her director role(s) as well as her executive day job. She should build and use a strong support system, and add value in all that she does.
  5. And, having reached the board pinnacle, she should reach out her hand to pull other women up the ladder and give back, by mentoring, nominating board-ready women, sharing her experiences and helping to change mindsets.

Men championing careerwomen

Aurora50 and MBRSG also believe there is work for the ecosystem to do to help these aspiring women – both at an organisational level and by male executives and board directors.
Men who wish to champion careerwomen can:
  • Offer to mentor them
  • Nominate them to boards when they are board-ready
  • Give them early board experience such as invites to shadow board meetings.
Organisations can become more proactive by:
  • Headhunting board-ready women
  • Developing a pipeline of female talent
  • Offering up transparent, regular data as women progress, so the community can create benchmarks, celebrate success and clear the choke points.
We would add that the pool of women must be expanded instead of ‘over-boarding’ the existing female directors to hit quotas.
Having the same women on multiple boards is not a long-term good governance solution, and we encourage boards to expand their networks.

ADNOC Group’s gender balance work

An ever-increasing number of companies in the UAE is working to grow both the number of women at the executive level and their board pipelines, including this report’s sponsor, ADNOC.
ADNOC Group now has three women chief executives, one of whom chairs its gender balance committee, and has pledged to put a woman on each of its boards by the end of this year; it currently has 17 women on its 22 boards.
Some 24 private-sector companies have also signed a pledge with the UAE Gender Balance Council, working towards a target of 30 percent within three years.
We hope this report will help women in the UAE and the region to confidently make their way to the top by 2032.