Arab women in leadership: creating a more inclusive workplace

This article is based on an exclusive interview conducted with Sheikha Alanoud Bint Hamad Al-Thani, Deputy CEO & Chief Business Officer, Qatar Financial Centre.
Celine Chami
May 24, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

Women in the Middle East are often widely celebrated when they break the glass ceiling and rise to positions of power, create more representation and slowly close the gender gap.

It is becoming noticeable how, in the span of one generation, Middle Eastern women have been able to accomplish so much, while still having to battle against a heavily patriarchal system.

Today, more of them stand at the forefront of the political and economic scenes and are actively working toward impacting societal changes in their countries. They have become role models for young girls in the region, allowing for future generations of women to aspire to reach, achieve and become empowered.

This is especially important if companies in the Middle East are looking to become more inclusive.

One particularly inspiring example is Sheikha Alanoud Bint Hamad Al-Thani, Deputy CEO & Chief Business Officer at Qatar Financial Centre (QFC).

Her role as a woman holding an executive position in a male dominated field serves as a visible example for young people, especially young women, of how far they can advance their careers in the finance industry, thereby inspiring them to start a career in the field. More importantly, as the leader of a business unit, her unit’s contribution to the organisation is seen as one that encourages these young women to trust their ability to make a difference in their chosen careers.

Sheikha Alanoud was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She perceives this as an opportunity and a commitment. It involves active engagement with other young leaders to better their respective communities, launch ground-breaking initiatives, revolutionise traditional ways of doing business, exchange experiences and knowledge, define new innovative ideas, and have their voices heard among decision makers worldwide.

“Equally important is our commitment to create a profound and positive impact on the community, become more responsible, strategic, and impactful leaders, and inspire the younger generations of future leaders – something I take to heart as an Arab woman who is keen to see more females in our societies rise to the top,” she states.

At the beginning of her career, and like many women, she felt that she needed to work extra hard to prove herself and be recognised. In retrospect, the extra hard work only brought benefits to her career, but she did have to focus on what was on the other side of the roadblock and find or build a path to get there.

“I was fortunate to join an organisation committed to creating a culture where the importance of gender equity and inclusion are understood and valued, so I would accredit part of my leadership journey to the support I received from my male counterparts and the larger team in the organisation,” she explains.

In fact, as one of the world’s leading and fastest growing onshore business and financial centres supporting the country’s goal of building a knowledge-based, diverse and sustainable economy, QFC strives to promote equal opportunities in the workplace and within the country’s business ecosystem.

To achieve this ambitious goal, they have implemented key legislation in line with international best practices such as equal opportunities for women and men to access work, equal pay for work of the same value, 14 weeks paid maternity leave in line with the ILO convention 183, and the prohibition of termination for reasons of marriage and maternity.

In the workplace, they have introduced part-time employment to provide more flexibility and a better work-life balance, and established a nursing room where women returning from maternity leave can breastfeed or express their milk.

As a result, 37 per cent of the workforce at QFC are female and, as a business platform, the company employs almost 2,000 women – around 31 per cent of the entire workforce.

Balanced workplaces

Sheikha Alanoud explains that despite the increased awareness of the significant benefits a gender balanced workplace brings to an organisation, women remain underrepresented in most business organisations, particularly in boardrooms. In fact, Deloitte reports a global average of just under 20% of board seats held by women in 2021.

“In order to close this gap, we need more women to enter the industry so that we can increase the number of those we can train and promote into managerial positions and consequently to executive roles,” she states.

While most financial organisations are now focused on diversity and inclusion, having a role model is still one of the most significant motivating factors to attracting young women into the industry, or any industry for that matter. “It is absolutely necessary if we wish to see a truly balanced and inclusive workplace.”

Qatar has been very active on this front. In fact, the country’s drive to empower women has seen women’s participation in Qatar’s labour force rise to 57 per cent in 2020 – the highest in the Middle East and higher than the world average, according to the World Bank.

Today, Qatari women are at the forefront of Qatar’s innovative and transformative diplomacy. Close to 200 female diplomats are working at different levels in the diplomatic corps, representing more than 30 per cent of the total diplomatic workforce.

For Sheikha Alanoud, in order to encourage women’s participation as leaders, it is important to not only equip them with access to jobs, but also to ensure they have the right support, experience, and opportunities to scale new heights.

“Being in a leadership position gives you opportunities to empower others, particularly women, either by example or by making educated decisions that promote gender diversity and equality in the workplace. I encourage anyone to leverage these opportunities to promote equitable work practices in their organisation,” she affirms.

This comes at a time when it is crucial for companies to rethink their HR policies and how they need to shift towards becoming naturally more inclusive. When genders are properly represented in the workforce and are offered equal opportunities, fair pay and a good work-life balance, this could only lead to a place where social justice is predominant and where people, companies and communities can more successfully play a strong role in becoming more sustainable.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.