Ginnie Carlier may be the only female partner at Ernst & Young’s Dubai office but she says that she has never felt excluded doing business as a woman in the Middle East. Indeed, she laughingly recounts that the only time she has ever felt discriminated against was during a spell with EY in the US when she was barred from a business lunch in a golf club for being a woman.
Carlier moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2008 as an EY assurance partner in Abu Dhabi. Her expertise was the technology industry, but her new client list included almost every sector except technology – from entrepreneurs to public utility companies to sovereign wealth funds. And she had to learn not only about new industries, but also about doing business in the Middle East and how to be a businesswoman in the region.
‘You can’t take your mindset and the way you did things in a developed market, bring it here and expect it to work,’ she says. ‘You really need to put on the hat of an entrepreneur. You need to maintain flexibility, agility in your thinking.’
She admits to experiencing culture shock at the diversity of the UAE, which has an estimated expatriate population of 88.7%, and says ‘the ability to work in a diverse environment and bring that diversity together’ is crucial. While the US may be considered the original melting pot, the differences between EY’s employees in the US are not so stark as they are in the Middle East, according to Carlier. Everyone on her audit team in Cleveland and San José came from the same socio-economic background, for example.
Diversity is the mother of innovation
But she insists that the benefits of a diversified workforce far outweigh the challenges. Diversity is important, she says, because ‘innovation is key to moving forward. We’re in a new norm from an economic standpoint. Without diverse and different thinking, opportunities will be lost if decisions are being made by people who look and think like you.’ Indeed, she says it is crucial that people are educated in what she calls ‘cross-cultural competence’ – that is, understanding, appreciating and respecting differences in the workplace.
When asked about the challenges of doing business as a woman in the Middle East, Carlier hesitantly answers that she feels a greater sense of responsibility about being a good role model to other women in the organisation as there are fewer women employed at her level than in some other regions of the world.
She has been establishing universal maternity and paternity leave for EY employees in the MENA region but says that while EY does a good job of recruiting women, the firm finds it harder to retain them as their careers advance. This is due to the pressures in their personal lives and, as a result, employee turnover rates for women are higher than for their male colleagues.
But for Carlier, the business case for diversity is clear: ‘If an organisation wants to be global, wants to be innovative, wants to grow, wants to succeed, then it has to embrace diversity.’
Ginnie Carlier is EY’s assurance service line people leader for the Europe, Middle East, India and Africa region. She is based in Dubai.
This article first appeared in Accountancy Futures, Edition 6, 2012