Why it's time to normalise gender roles in leadership
It’s not usually the lure of the ‘leader’ label that makes entrepreneurs follow their dreams. In fact, oftentimes they are either one person operatives or co-founders, with no one (yet) to lead. Entrepreneurship is not alien to women in the Middle East of course - it’s a thriving ecosystem of its own that attracts plenty of female founders, and for many reasons. There is a difference in ‘working for yourself’ or from a home based set up and considering yourself an SME. Start-ups have a tendency to grow of course, and whatever the gender, the L word becomes necessary, whether in managing staff internally or for the benefit of outward credibility - of showcasing leadership skills to the wider world. To influence potential customers, collaborators, staff or investors, leadership is necessary - whatever the title on the business card says. The key to any leadership success is in the learning, the action and the trial and error.
The SME world is in a better place than the corporate world to bridge existing gaps in gender diversity at management level. Innovation, agility and the ability to make change quickly, smaller organisations are able to normalise gender roles in leadership , and that they must. Latest research from the Academy of Management states that there is a “vicious cycle of underrepresentation in startups” and that if early hiring decisions exclude women, the organisation will have difficulty in attracting female talent further down the line. Once a company starts with that imbalance, it is harder to rectify the disparity.
Hiring decisions tend to be made by the founders themselves in the early stages of a business, rather than external HR expertise or recruiters. Typically utilising their own personal networks, like begets like, and in a male dominated system, the cycle perpetuates, excluding women from earlier stage opportunities. Women are particularly under-represented in new businesses that have received external capital or VC funding - as we know, these investments statistically benefit more male founded startups than female, and by a long way.
Organisations should focus on gender balance from day one, and if that is too late, to begin to rectify their outlook on leadership diversity as soon as they can, because the benefits are clear.
Statistically, more females in leadership means more profit for the business. Factually, companies who are gender diverse are 26 percent more likely to outperform their competitors when it comes to profitability. Having more women leaders results in a multitude of positives for an organisation. Higher profitability, increased market share and notably, increased productivity and innovation, thus resulting in a competitive advantage.
With increasing shareholder demands to see diversity within teams, I am also seeing a trend of clients working with firms who are gender equal as policy. Some companies are also asking to see statistics of DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) within an RFP (request for proposal). It makes sense to show fair and equal representation of women, or at least have a strategy and vision in place to remain competitive in your market.
With global and regional mandates on gender equality becoming law, the middle east region is ramping up its efforts to set balance quotas. The KSA Vision 2030 is a catalyst for realising women’s rights in the strategy set by the country who is planning to diversify its economy and reduce reliance on oil. Vision 2030 promotes women as an important part of the Kingdom's strength. It aims to develop their talents, invest in them and provide them with the right opportunities to build their futures, contributing to the development of society.
The UAE in 2015 formed the Gender Balance Council, responsible for implementing and driving forward the gender balance agenda in the Emirates. The council plans to reduce the gender gap across all government sectors, in order to enhance rankings in global competitiveness and with a vision to position the UAE as a world model for gender balance. I am proud to have founded WILD in the UAE in line with the country's vision.
It’s important to remember that the war on talent is a fierce one currently. Women left the corporate world in droves post pandemic. In order to attract the best female talent a company needs to invest, engage and inspire - creating strong employer branding which reflects that female diversity and inclusion. We know that it costs less to retain talent than it does to recruit. We often see younger females falling from the talent pipeline before they reach leadership level due to a lack of female role models and outdated talent management structures. Those firms who invest in females and place gender equality as a core focus will garner better business results and be in line with the region's overall vision. Analytically, it's unequivocal that female leadership drives competitiveness and this affects all disciplines.
About the author
Emma Burdett is the founder of WILD (Women in Leadership Deliver), a keynote speaker, moderator, and transformational coach. An avid advocate for gender equality, diversity and inclusion, she is INSEAD-qualified in gender equality studies and a gender equality specialist. Emma was selected as one of LinkedIn's 'Top Voices' for her work on gender equality.
Emma is also the force behind the membership of WILD Women Collective, combining wellness and leadership. WWC is the only women's network to connect women across the GCC borders.