Opinion: Beyond the glass ceiling

While policy must be shaped to ease the progress of women in business, female executives can – and must – do more to help each other

Modern-day women’s rights have been a hotly debated topic since the days of Virginia Woolf and Huda Shaarawi, the Egyptian feminist who broke new ground in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, that debate continues.

I was recently asked if, as a female professional, I had ever come up against a “glass ceiling”. The question intrigued me, as fortunately I had not faced this issue in my careers in the corporate and non-profit world. However, there are many women out there who have.

The pace of change for women in business world-wide is still slow. We are continuing to see excellent female executives who leave the workplace and fail to attain senior positions because, for example, they want to have children. The work/life balance paradigm remains an elusive ideal.

Successful female executives should reach out to other women starting their careers in business and say, “It is possible. It is difficult at times, but it is possible”

In some instances, women also continue to face inequality in terms of remuneration. It is not uncommon for female executives to find themselves in a situation whereby a male colleague may be doing exactly the same job as her but for a higher salary.

But there is something else holding women back – themselves. This is a theory that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg floats in her book Lean In. Sandberg argues that sometimes women need to push for their “place at the table” by having more self-confidence and by overcoming anxieties about their performance in the boardroom. I have a lot of sympathy with that position. Sometimes women can be quick to doubt themselves and too ready to downplay their abilities.

So what can be done to help women achieve their business potential?

I am a firm believer in quotas. I recognise that a lot of people don’t agree, and I understand their hesitancy. But sometimes you just need an extra push to close the gap.

This relates to policy, which I believe, has to be the first step in narrowing the male/female disparity in business and in the workplace at large. The quota system is something we have already implemented here in the UAE and it is now mandatory for a specified number of women to sit on a company board.

In fact our experience in the UAE serves as a great example because there is a consolidated effort at both government and corporate level to introduce programmes that will help women beat a path to the boardroom.

These include networking facilities and mentoring programmes. Here in Dubai we have the Dubai Business Women’s Council where, for a nominal fee, you get to be part of a really valuable network and also get to learn an awful lot from other women in business.

Earlier I touched on the notion that women do not always rate their professional abilities as generously as their male counterparts. Women must help themselves, of course, but women also have a role to play in helping each other. I feel that it is really important for women to find mentors. Female entrepreneurs and professionals who have achieved should and ought to mentor women lower down the corporate ladder. They should reach out to them and say, “It is possible. It is difficult at times, but it is possible.”

What I find very positive are moves by some big global companies to introduce programmes geared specifically at nurturing and developing female executive talent. Again, such initiatives are evident in the UAE and my own organisation offers what we call the Female Empowerment Programme.

Such schemes are certainly working in the UAE. I found it incredible to hear that UAE businesswomen currently control more than Dh15bn (US$4bn) in investments – concentrated mostly in trade, equities and real estate – with that figure expected to reach Dh50bn (US$13.6bn) within the next two years.

I also know that with this extraordinary negotiating power comes a great deal of responsibility. I would not have reached this level in my career without dedicating much of my time and efforts to committing diligently to all the projects I work on.

Breaking through the glass ceiling may still prove difficult for women, and there is much to be done. But Woolf and Shaarawi must surely be smiling at the strides that have already been made by women in business worldwide.