This article was first published in the March 2015 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Comprehensive pro-diversity company policies are needed to encourage women in business, participants of the fourth ACCA Middle East Women in Finance roundtable heard. The event, held in January in Dubai, was attended by more than 30 female finance executives.

‘By having a single mindset in the executive team you will reach only one segment of the customer base,’ ACCA chief executive Helen Brand told the delegates. ’You need to bring different perspectives around the table.

‘Diversity is now a business need and many companies are still grappling with it. The process needs to be managed to make it work,’ she added. ‘Diversity doesn’t happen by osmosis. You need the data and processes in place to make it happen.’

Issues discussed during the event included the benefits of embracing diversity, the barriers involved and a study into the issue by United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Pearl Initiative, recently rolled out across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.

The Pearl Initiative is a not-for-profit organisation developed in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships to improve transparency, accountability and business practices in the Gulf region. The latest study conducted by the Pearl Initiative assesses the professional openings for female executives on the demand side.

Cynthia Corby, audit partner at Deloitte & Touche Middle East, and the event’s moderator, said the aim of the roundtable was to help increase the numbers of women in middle management. She also highlighted the need for companies to engage a younger workforce: ‘While through cultural diversity companies can understand and respond to a broader customer base, it’s also important to bring on younger people who understand the importance of social media and how to maximise these new communication channels to reach all potential consumers,’ she said.

Sarah Walton, MEA reporting manager for PepsiCo International, added: ‘I’ve come across interns that have really inspiring ideas.’ And Hanady Khalife, director of Middle East and Africa at the Institute of Management Accountants, said she hoped a shift in attitudes among today’s young employees would render discussions about diversity obsolete. 

Meanwhile, Lindsay Degouve de Nuncques, head of ACCA UAE, said it was important to broaden the discussion to all aspects of diversity. ‘Diversity of thought is something everyone can relate to and it’s important to foster that,’ she said.

So how can diversity, particularly gender diversity, be promoted in a region which is traditionally a man’s world? Farah Foustok, managing director and senior executive officer of Lazard Asset Management, suggested the need for more female executive hiring quotas. ‘I was against quotas, but they’re needed as a kick-start – especially in this part of the world,’ she said. ‘Unless more women take top positions, they won’t be role models for others.’

And Diana Gregory, business development consultant at the Association of Corporate Treasurers Middle East, noted: ‘The challenge is that there are still not enough women in the pool to take the top positions – there are still far more men, and  the perception that women won’t have the same opportunities.’

However, Randa Bessiso, director of the Manchester Business School Middle East Centre, countered: ‘I work for an organisation led by a woman, and where 18% of the workforce is female. Empowerment is a matter of choice.’ 

Leila Rezaiguia, co-founder and managing partner of Kompass Consultancy (Dubai) explained that while women were able, they lacked self-belief. ‘From a coaching perspective, the main issue we come across is that women have the potential, but often don’t realise it. We work mostly on building self-confidence.’

Payal Trehan, senior wealth adviser at deVere Group, added: ‘Just 10 per cent of wealth management positions are held by women, and we don’t see a lot of recruitment applications. There are not a lot of expat women at senior level as they are often second earners.’

Delegates were also given a preview of the Pearl Initiative study, which will be available in full in the coming months. Imelda Dunlop, the organisation’s executive director, said that women in the GCC (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman) are actually very ambitious: ‘In recent years, there has been an enormous rise in women’s education and participation in Saudi Arabia, for example,’ she said. The number of women in the workplace has increased five to six times, she added.

It is also important to take a regional-wide view, she continued. ‘There are things that we can learn from other parts of the world, but culturally you can’t copy and paste. What’s crucial is to get male CEOs on board to raise awareness of gender diversity.’

Céline Schreiber, the Pearl Initiative’s programme manager, also reported that while the majority of study respondents wanted to reach senior positions, their motivation was more about a need for recognition than financial gain. ‘Work-life balance is the thing that becomes difficult – and gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is still very prevalent,’ she said.

Some of the report’s recommendations will focus on how to retain female talent through flexible working arrangements, allowing the option to work remotely but within defined performance-based appraisal systems. ‘There needs to be a focus on trust that the work is being done, even if the person involved is not physically present,’ said Schreiber.

Dunlop added: ‘Ten years into a woman’s career is when the pipeline needs to be strengthened, to ensure they don’t opt out.’

Equally, women’s right to choose to ‘opt out’ needed to be respected, said Nusrate Ibrahim, managing director of the NTI FZ LLE finance, governance and management training consultancy. ‘The glass ceiling is not particular to the Middle East region; it applies equally to other parts of the world. Also, with a lot of women, it’s a life choice to opt out of a career and have children and run the household. We have to respect this also. Diversity comes from a mindset.’

Delegates also engaged in a straw poll: interestingly, 63 per cent disagreed that diversity as a topic was too broad and that participants needed to focus specifically on women’s issues – with 18 per cent strongly disagreeing and 45 per cent partly disagreeing. Only 9 per cent strongly agreed with the statement.

At the same time, opinion was split on whether achieving gender diversity at senior executive levels was becoming a strategic business priority for most CEOs, with 46 per cent in partial agreement and 38 per cent in partial disagreement.

However, when asked whether target quotas were necessary to achieving a balance of women at executive levels and on boards, 78 per cent of delegates were in favour – with 30 per cent strongly agreeing and 48 per cent partly agreeing.

Seventy-six per cent also agreed that there would be a significant increase in the number of women in executive and board roles in the GCC in five years’ time, with 32 per cent strongly agreeing and 44 per cent partly agreeing.

Finally, there was unanimous agreement that top leadership plays a crucial role in achieving gender equality at senior levels within an organisation. 

ACCA has conducted two major studies on diversity. The first, in 2012, titled Building a better business through finance diversity, looked at issues such as understanding cultural differences, nurturing diversity where it does not yet exist, and embracing open ways of working. This was followed in September 2014 by Towards better diversity management, which further suggested that diversity enables businesses to have a stronger stock market performance and gives them greater ability to attract investors.