Why are there so few women in senior finance roles in the Middle East?Posted on May 14, 2014

Whilst attending the 6th Annual CFO conference hosted by IMA Middle East recently, one thing struck me more significantly than the fact that I was sat in the room with 60+ of the most senior staff members from some of the most influential companies in the region…where are all the women? Of the 60-70 delegates in the room, 4 of them were women. Moreover, during the 2 day conference there wasn’t a single woman speaker on the agenda. So I wondered what is it that means women rarely become CFOs in the Middle East and what price are companies in this region paying for such an unbalanced workforce?

Afterall, some of the World’s most important financial figures are women:

  • Christine Lagarde – Managing Director, IMF, U.S.
  • Sri Mulyani Indrawati – Managing Director, World Bank, Indonesia
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – Finance Minister, Nigeria
  • Chandar Kochar – CEO, ICICI Bank, India
  • Dominique Senequier – CEO, AXA Private Equity, France

In fact, the Forbes Most Powerful Women in Finance list does feature one Middle East representative; Lubna Olayan – CEO, Olayan Financing Company, Saudi Arabia suggesting that female finance leaders in this region needn’t be so uncommon.

Laimoon spent some time with Loutfi K. Echhade, Leader for MENA Family Business Center of Excellence   at EY to discuss women in finance. Loutfi believes that there are a number of factors as to why women do not typically become CFOs in this region.  These factors include the tedious work schedule, significant time and heavy travel required to do the job well. Another important factor is due to the fact that the role of the CFO is public facing, requiring the individual to be in the public scene, and to actively engage and continuously interact with many constituencies, such as regulators, investors, bankers, customers, employees and the public. Traditionally, Middle Eastern women would not be so publically seen and continue to play a very significant role in the family home as mother, family caretaker and partner and to a certain extent a role in managing family controlled businesses. The CFO position is not necessarily considerate of these factors and tends to deter women from taking up the CFO position.

At first glance, this all seems to be a somewhat archaic and out-dated view. After all, career focused mothers have been a common feature in some parts of the modern world for over 50 years. However, when taking a look at female CFOs in the US, maybe Middle East women have got it right in leaving this one to the men. It was reported by the Daily Mail in 2011 that Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers regrets putting her job ahead of her hopes to become a mother; telling readers “it isn’t worth it”. Additionally, Cathy Avgiris, CFO for Comcast Cable explained to Montgomery News that sometimes she was not prepared to take the promotions she was offered as it required her to compromise her responsibilities to her children, her parents and her husband.

Returning to my conversation with Loutfi, I asked if he felt that companies without strong female presence within their senior finance teams were missing out. Loutfi’s answer was a categorical ‘Yes’! Loutfi explained that in his experience women generally handled tension, workload and commitment better than men and made more rational and considered decisions under pressure. He also felt women had equal if not better leadership, management and communication skills that are sometimes lacking amongst finance professionals.

In light of this understanding, Loutfi wanted to highlight that there are a number of private company and government led initiatives striving to increase the role of women not just in finance but in business in general, so that these valuable attributes can be harnessed and used to the benefit of the individual and the company. Loutfi explains how just few years ago you were highly unlikely to see a national female in the workplace in Saudi Arabia and now their presence is well recognized and is on the rise. The Ideation Centre reported that in 2007, 85.6% of the National’s in Saudi’s labor force were men and women’s unemployment was nearly 30%, 4 times that of men. Bringing more women into the workforce not only seeks to address this inequality, but moreover strengthens and diversifies the available skills and attributes that companies can draw upon to drive their success .

To summarize, there are reasonable explanations that explain why the CFO role may not appeal to women as much as men, and certainly this is magnified in the Middle East. However, women can add significant value to the region’s economies and as such opportunities for women to become better educated and access the top jobs are increasing. So ambitious women and ambitious companies have much to look forward to.

Don’t forget Laimoon can assist you in finding finance jobs, finance and accounting qualifications, leadership and management training and other great insight to help you build a successful career.

Our thanks go to Loutfi K. Echhade, IMA Middle East and Marcus Evans for allowing us to gather and share this invaluable insight with the Laimoon audience.

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