Earlier this month, Jazala Hamad became the first female Emirati to make partner in the 96-year history of Deloitte Middle East.
The promotion is a huge achievement for Hamad herself and an encouraging sign of progress for women in the UAE workplace generally. But the gender gap – better described as a gender gulf in the region – is still not closing swiftly enough, despite initiatives from government and other organisations.
The UAE leads the way in the region and has moved up to 18th place in the UN Development Programme’s gender inequality index, which ranks 162 countries using five statistical indicators including labour force participation rate, maternal mortality and proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females.
In the Middle East as a whole, just 25% of the workforce is female, compared with the global average of 50%, as a result of a legacy of unquestioned cultural norms and traditions under which women never worked.
‘A breakthrough in culture and attitudes will change women’s prospects of success,’ said ACCA chief executive Helen Brand, speaking via video link at an ACCA Women in Finance event held in Dubai in June. The event is the first in a series set to unfold over the coming year and is designed to support and encourage women in the finance industry.
More than 50, mostly female, executives heard from a panel of leading figures in business and finance in the region, who shared their career journeys and early challenges, and what they wished they had known when they started out.
‘Don’t try and feel you need to join the boys’ club – network in your own way’
Brand pointed out that although much has been done to ‘shift the needle’, the work is far from over.
‘The truth is that change is happening – too slowly, but there is perceptible change nonetheless,’ she said. ‘There is a wider acceptance in societies everywhere that women should have equal access to opportunity as men in their work and in their life.’
In a keynote speech Hamad, who qualified with ACCA and serves as an example of what can be achieved with the right support and a determined culture, said that in 2022 you would have expected to see more women in leadership. She added that there was ‘more we can do to ensure diversity and inclusion’ and highlighted the need to break down prejudices such as that local women aren’t as hardworking or committed as their counterparts.
Cynthia Corby, partner, COO and transformation and strategy leader, audit and assurance, at Deloitte Middle East, who has mentored Hamad since the start of her internship, said that women need to set boundaries and be more assertive about asking for what they deserve. She was also adamant about the power of networking in a way that feels authentic to women. ‘Don’t feel you need to join the boys’ club – network in your own way,’ she advised.
Fazeela Gopalani, head of ACCA Middle East, stressed the need to maintain momentum by keeping culture and conversation relevant, engaged and visible.
‘More needs to be done to ensure that the number of women entering the finance profession continues to grow,’ she said. ‘While the number is rising in the region, it is still far below an even representation. ACCA’s goals align with the UAE’s vision for gender parity, and the Women in Finance series is part of our ongoing efforts to support this.’
Brand concluded on a positive note. ‘I believe that the landscape will surely change at last for the coming generation,’ she said. ‘And it will change because businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the talents of half the world’s population if they want to survive.’