Women in Finance in the Gulf region: Similar picture, long journey

A new report by ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) Middle East has found that a majority of finance professionals believe their sector or function should be leading the way in improving the rate of gender diversity across the GCC region. However, the numbers do not suggest they will any time soon.

A new ACCA report called ‘Women in Finance: beyond the numbers’ was launched at an event in Dubai, bringing together senior finance professionals and leaders from the GCC (Gulf Cooperative Council) region which includes all Arab States of the Persian Gulf except Iraq. The report was produced by Deloitte Middle East and the Pearl Initiative and consists of data from both primary and secondary research. The newly generated survey results include:

  • A majority (82%) of respondents agree that the finance function plays an important role in shaping the business case for diversity
  • More than three quarters (76%) think that there will be a significant increase in women in executive and board positions within five years
  • Nearly half (48%) believe that negative gender biases are still prevalent in firms across the region

Survey data emerged from discussions and research undertaken at the ACCA women in finance forum. However, no details about sampling or sample sizes are included.

Why the Gulf regional business cares

As the Middle East region goes through more changes including an increased emphasis on diversification, fiscal reform and enhanced regulation, it aims at attracting further investor interest from key markets in order to place the region more prominently on the global map. The finance function and industry is clearly key across the region as it moves from playing a once transactional role to a more strategic imperative. The report also explains, that and increasing number of predominantly private employers in the region are adopting international standards and working principles including ‘a significant emphasis on attracting, retaining and developing women to further promote a diverse ecosystem’.

The baseline numbers for the Region

According to statistics shared during the 2016 Global Women’s Forum held in Dubai, GCC’s female labour force participation stands at 47 per cent in the UAE, 51 per cent in Qatar, 44 per cent in Kuwait, 29 per cent in Oman and 20 per cent in Saudi Arabia. However, women account for only 17 per cent of all executive roles in the UAE and 7 per cent in Qatar. Across the region only 13 per cent of women are CEOs versus a 21 per cent similar share in all developing countries’ with a low of 7 per cent representing presidents of the board, highlighting the significant gap that is currently present when looking at the top. “The decreasing female representation as look at higher echelons are quite equal to what we see in other world regions – and equally worrying”, says Diversity expert Michael Stuber who had just addressed a global audience of D&I experts in Mumbai. He explains that some similar biases are showing up around the world while cultural differences apply in addition.

The additional generational case in the Middle East

Responding to the report findings Lindsay Degouve de Nuncques, head of ACCA Middle East, said: “Progress on gender diversity has been somewhat slow across both the GCC and globally: only 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by CEOs and the gender pay gap persists across the OECD. Regionally, while labour laws and employment legislation have been enacted to further gender parity, only 13% of women occupy CEO positions compared to 21% in all developing nations.” For her, it is clear that “an immense level of change” is required to address this and that the ‘tone from the top will be important to meet the expectations of a millennial workforce’. The GCC has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 30.3 in UAE and 27.2 in Saudi Arabia.

Yet the level of change required is not just going to happen from below. All survey respondents, i.e. 100 per cent, agreed that the ‘tone from the top’ is vital in nurturing and promoting women to the most senior positions, and the growing significance of the finance function means it should be willing to lead the way.

The report can be found online at