The United Arab Emirates, the conservative Gulf state home to the consumer paradise that is Dubai and rolling in oil money, recently passed a law that requires all public and private sector organizations to include at least one female board member. It’s a big step for the UAE, since women make up 18% of the labor force and only 1.5% of corporate board members across Gulf states. The law is part of a broader effort to encourage the growth of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and strengthen the economy outside of the oil sector, so the quota indicates that the UAE Cabinet views women’s business leadership as an integral part of future economic growth. The Emirates is jumping on an opportunity to become a leader in the region on advancing women in business. Well done, UAE.
Contrast that with a report from Catalyst that just came out tracking women in top positions in US companies. Its results: women are stagnating in corporate leadership positions. The number of women in top positions has grown only 0.5% from 2011, and is still slightly lower than the number from 2010. Though women in the US make up half of the workforce, in 2012 they held only 16.6% of board seats and only 14.3 percent of executive officer positions of Fortune 500 companies. The situation is even worse for women of color, who hold only 3.3% of board seats.
European countries facing similarly deplorable numbers have implemented quota systems similar to that in UAE. Norway mandates that all corporate boards with more than nine members must have at least 40% representation from each gender. Iceland, Belgium, Spain, and Italy also have quotas, and the UK is considering them. But we aren’t seeing any calls for quotas in the US. Why could that be?
A quote from Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bint Sultan Al Qasimi, UAE minister of foreign trade and coincidentally the UAE’s first female minister, seems to reflect an American attitude on the subject.
“While quotas are set by law in some countries, I believe this should not be the go-to solution for the UAE and the region in general. As a woman I would prefer to attain my position by real merit rather than always wonder if I was appointed to the board just to hit a quota or through affirmative action,” she said in response to the new law.
It’s a very American response: that real merit, hard work, and gumption are all we need to make it to the top. But the dismal numbers of women’s business leadership in the US point to structural factors and roadblocks that no amount of gumption is going to get past. The fact that women are usually the ones expected to carry the responsibilities of childcare and care of the elderly means that women lose valuable years in the workplace that their male peers spend advancing their careers. It is almost impossible for women to catch up in terms of promotions or salary. Meanwhile, there is outright discrimination against women in the workplace, when it comes to hiring, pay, promotions, and yes, appointments to corporate boards. The Catalyst study identified a pool of over 700 women executives qualified to serve on corporate boards with a lot to offer. So why is it that they are so drastically underrepresented?
In our conversation on women in the workplace in the US, we put the onus on women to overcome structural difficulties, but only tentatively consider that maybe the best solution is to shift the structure entirely. We need to recognize that women’s participation and leadership is crucial to a thriving economy, and we’re going to have to make a lot of changes to make that happen. For starters, there’s nothing wrong with a little boost to get women’s voices heard on corporate boards.