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International Women’s Day: UAE accountants on embracing equity

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Mar 2023

In celebration of International Women’s Day, ICAEW asked some of its top female members from the UAE how chartered accountants can help organisations tackle gender inequality.

International Women’s Day is a day to reflect on the social, political, cultural and economic achievements of women. While women’s equality has made positive gains in the last 50 years, the reality is much of the world remains unequal. 

Attempts to tackle gender inequality in business have ramped up in recent years. The UAE has implemented several legislative reforms related to women’s economic participation and has seen its rankings improve significantly on the United Nations Development Programme’s International Gender Inequality Index as a result.

The UAE Labour Law now mandates equal pay for work of equal value for females and males. However, closing the pay gap is only one element of a greater issue. Despite the great strides being made, access to top jobs for women is a work in progress, and gender bias remains an issue.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is about embracing equity and explaining why equal opportunities are no longer enough. Giving everyone access to the same resources and expecting the same outcome assumes that everyone has the same start line – and this can be vastly inaccurate because everyone is not the same. Equity recognises these different circumstances, and calls for allocating resources and opportunities, depending on what is needed, to reach an equal outcome. 

Dr Jeannette Vinke FCA, COO, American University of Sharjah, remarks: “While more women have been moving into paid work over the last decades and, increasingly, into leadership positions in industries, headwinds such as societal expectations, employer policies, the legal environment, and the availability of care infrastructure still exist. This has continued to limit the educational opportunities women can access and the career possibilities they pursue.”

According to the WEF 2022 Gender Gap Report, women continue to be overrepresented in education and health and welfare degree subjects compared to men, and underrepresented in STEM fields. The gender gap is most prevalent in two fields, information and communication technologies (ICT) and engineering and manufacturing. Taking into account graduates from all fields, the percentage of women graduates in ICT is 1.7%, compared to 8.2% of men graduates, while in engineering and manufacturing it’s 24.6% for men and 6.6% for women. Though gender segmentation in degree choices continues in traditional education, high-frequency data from Coursera’s 2021 report finds that more women than ever are skilling, reskilling and upskilling online.

“Our goal as educational institutions needs to be empowering women to pick their desired educational paths without having to worry about societal expectations,” adds Vinke.

The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report also indicates that the pandemic had a significant impact on the growth of women entrepreneurs worldwide, sparking the surge of women founding their own businesses. In the UAE, the number of female founders saw a remarkable increase of 68% in 2020.

Naeema Mulla, ICAEW member, chartered accountant and taxation specialist in Dubai, observes: “The pandemic didn’t just accelerate progress for women, it unleashed their entrepreneurial spirit. Amid a global shift to remote work and widespread job loss, women around the world seized the opportunity to tap into their natural talent and resilience, starting their own businesses and igniting a wave of successful women entrepreneurs poised to revolutionise the business world. As the demand for their experience and wisdom grows, so too does the call for women to take their rightful place in boardrooms worldwide. The pandemic may have been a sudden change, but it also ignited a growing tide of successful women ready to take their seats in the boardroom and lead the way forward.”

For Emirates NBD, technology-driven flexibility has helped create more opportunities for women within the banking group. Fatima Saleh Abdulla Mohamed Buali, Business Performance, Emirates NBD Group, says: “We are fortunate that Emirates NBD’s diversity and inclusion programme has always harnessed technology to support flexible working conditions and deliver training as required. This has been developed further post pandemic, and I have personally benefited from our remote work policy and family leave policies as well as from the executive courses, coaching and mentoring offered specifically for female employees. I’ve been able to enhance my skillset and improve my career prospects within the bank.”

Emirates NBD is committed to achieving gender parity, and women now constitute 44% of the workforce; their representation is even more pronounced among Emirati women who make up 77% of its national workforce. 

While it’s certainly not new, the importance of diversity (and reporting on it) in the workplace continues to gain traction, and there’s no denying that in the future, accountants will have to do more reporting on diversity. This is no longer just about doing the right thing, but recognising that lack of diversity and inclusion is a potential financial risk to businesses.

Hanadi Khalife, Head of Middle East, ICAEW, explains: “At an organisational level, understanding the scale and extent of the gender equality problem has got to be the starting point. This is where chartered accountants have an invaluable role to play in collecting and interrogating the data to produce a non-negotiable marker in the sand and help organisations chart a course to improvement. Professionals should be acutely aware of their role in promoting gender equality, and should be taking action across all professions to close the gap.”

Technology has made gender and pay-gap reporting a much simpler task through automation. While this has largely been driven by regulation on pay-gap reporting in markets such as the UK, it has also created an opportunity for chartered accountants to dig deeper into the data and hold boards of companies to account on the implementation of meaningful cultural changes. Embracing equity is not only important for improved business performance, but for investor confidence, and talent acquisition and retention. Ultimately, it benefits society too.

“Above all, organisations must foster a culture of inclusion to empower underrepresented talent and create an environment for the diversity of thought that will benefit productivity and bottom-line performance. That culture must be a strategic cornerstone – supported by investment from boards and robust governance around data to ensure shifts continue to occur,” adds Khalife.

Michele Rosso, CFO, Mediclinic, agrees that accountants should broaden their traditional financial roles to include cultural stewardship. “The responsibilities of chartered accountants extend beyond just compiling and analysing data. A lot of them are in positions where they can provide training and mentorship to colleagues at all levels, giving them the confidence to achieve their full potential, and develop strategies for creating an inclusive workplace culture.

“Finance professionals can play an active role in creating a more aware and equitable society, in which people of all genders and cultures feel empowered to forge their own path. This is particularly important given the critical role that financial decision-making plays in shaping the business landscape.”

Join ICAEW's Diversity Community

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