Leading from the front

“Women are critical to driving inclusive economic growth... our economic power is truly revolutionary”

“The truth is that we – women – are already the most dynamic and fastest-growing economic force in the world today.”

Sophie Le Ray is passionate about a movement that is flowing faster than mere gender equality. And she has the qualifications to back it up; Le Ray is CEO of the Women in Leadership Forum, an economic and societal platform based in Dubai that promotes global gender diversity in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors.

Their event in November 2014 featured speakers such as HE Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansoori, Minister of Economy in the United Arab Emirates, and Cherie Blair, wife to the former UK Prime Minister, and Founder of Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Topics ranged from promoting economic development through female entrepreneurship, how best to champion gender diversity at a business and corporate level, and much discussion between attendees of potential business and investment opportunities.

“As a female CEO, I noticed that many women didn’t have a concentrated women-focused networking platform to meet, get inspired and especially do business,” says Le Ray.

“That’s why we created our own unique concept, WIL (Women in Leadership) Forum, to provide first-hand insight, mentorship and business development opportunities for women.”

Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansoori
His Excellency Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansoori, with Her Excellency Sheikha Bodour and WIL's CEO Sophie Le Ray at the 2014 WIL Forum

Since 2009, there has been 15 WIL Forums in seven different cities across Middle East and Asia. Over 4000 inspirational leaders, policy makers, entrepreneurs, international and local organisations, as well as male champions of change, have gathered together to encourage concrete actions maximising women’s contributions towards development and economic growth.

A big topic for the WIL is the 'economics of female leadership' – how female leaders and entrepreneurs are impacting both regional and global economies.  

“Women control 70% of global spending, US$20 trillion of consumer spending and represent 40% of the global workforce,” says Le Ray.

“In both emerging markets and developed nations, women's commercial power and influence extends well beyond the traditional roles -- women are critical to driving inclusive economic growth and our economic power is truly revolutionary, representing the largest market opportunity in the world.”

Hind Al Youha
Hind Al Youha, a Director at the UAE Ministry of Economy, speaks at the Forum

She adds that, while economic growth in the Middle East and Africa has been remarkable over the last four years, there is still a lot of progress to be made –75% of women in the region are not involved in the economy and youth unemployment is the highest of any region in the world.

However, global figures look more promising, as there are approximately 187 million women entrepreneurs worldwide who own around 30% of all private businesses in the formal economy. Le Ray quotes from a Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, which shows that more women than men entrepreneurs introduce innovations in developed economies.

The World Economic Forum recently released figures on the gender gap worldwide, which revealed that Iceland had gone the furthest way towards closing the space. Closing the gender gap, says Le Ray, would have huge implications for the global economy, boosting American GDP by as much as 9%, Eurozone by 13%, Japanese by 16% and in developing countries like Egypt by a massive 34%.

When asked how women can take these statistics and apply them to their own lives and careers, Le Ray asserts that women with stellar performance records can be held back because they are not seen as having the potential to lead at a senior level, but that a female mentor is vital in progressing through the glass ceiling.

“When it comes to promotions, many companies still evaluate women as per their performance, while men as per their potential,” she says.

“Another issue is women do not move up into strategic roles because they are not mentored towards that function. And despite increasing awareness of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, women are still lacking in self-confidence, and perceive men to have numerous advantages over them. Finally, lack of flexible working arrangements in juggling work and personal life is another barrier.

“Women have to be willing to take charge,” concludes Le Ray. “Too many times I’ve seen people sit back and wait for someone to tell them what to do. If you want to be in the top jobs, don’t wait to be asked. Figure out what needs to be done and then make it happen.”