Women in the boardroom: the new reality?

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Stories about dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds have erupted recently in both fiction and the big screen; stories where the norm, what is commonly accepted as normal, does not exist anymore – often following some type of revolution – and the survivors have to adjust and adapt to the new “reality” if they are to, well, survive.

Imagine for a moment what dystopia could look like in the corporate world. Perhaps a place where women hold the reins of organizations and are the key decision makers. A place where women are the main source of income and men are charged with raising children and maintaining the household.

Although this situation can’t really be qualified as “dystopia” since it already exists in certain, albeit uncommon, instances, what if we applied it universally? What if the heads of Apple, CNN, Yahoo, and Ford were women? Would the iPad look like an iPad? Would the Ford car still look like the compact 4×4 family car that it is now?

Probably not. iPads would probably weigh less and have protective padding to shield them from toddlers attacking it day in and day out. The Ford car model would probably be a compact 12-seater, because that’s what mothers – even working mothers – feel they need when they take their children out; because we all know the literal baggage that accompanies children’s outings.

Yet in a world where women make the majority of household decisions, is this dystopia really that far-fetched? At first glance, it would seem so. Despite increased focus on quotas, development, women’s rights, and more flexible arrangements, the limited progress around the world suggests that something is clearly amiss. Case in point: The Middle East North Africa region has the lowest female participation rate globally.

These findings are surprising when there is a clear business case for the attraction, retention, development, and advancement of women to leadership in organizations and society. A masculine corporate culture that is not sufficiently inclusive as well as conscious and unconscious bias in developing and promoting leaders, are some of the biggest barriers to promoting women. Other challenges are tied to women themselves, such as readiness to take career risks, or build appropriate business networks.

Signs of this “revolution” are becoming less rare however. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women have become more visible participants in public life, education and business, with a woman recently having been appointed to a ministerial level position; in both Jordan and Lebanon, a quota for women has been introduced for municipal elections and in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the first women judges were appointed in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42 percent higher return in sales, 66 percent higher return on invested capital, and 53 percent higher return on equity.

In the Middle East, the transformation is just getting started, but there needs to be more attention of tackling stereotypes, and changing perceptions. Laws that support gender diversity and policies that allow women to advance their careers while also balancing their work/life fit will go a long way in allowing women to enter the boardroom.

From women presidents, to female CEOs and best-selling female authors, it would appear that this dystopia that you were asked to imagine at the beginning of this article, could soon enough become the new “norm”. Or can it?

by: Nadine El Hassan, manager, public relations, Deloitte Middle East

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