Women on boards [Pt 2]: Global campaign to increase gender diversity launches MENA chapter in Cairo

Photo: AUC School of Business/Facebook

On March 3, 2020, the United Kingdom-based 30% Club campaign launched its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) chapter at the Egyptian Exchange’s (EGX) headquarters in Cairo.

Established in 2010, the 30% Club is a voluntary campaign which aimed to have the boards of companies listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index (FTSE 100) to comprise of 30% women by 2015, a goal they achieved by 2018. With 14 chapters globally, the 30% Club has over 160 members representing multinational organizations, educational institutions, family-owned business and governments.

The EGX and the AUC School of Business Women on Boards Observatory (WoB) came together to celebrate the launch of the 30% Club MENA at the exchange’s headquarters located in the Egyptian capital’s Smart Village district.

The WoB, which is a member of the 30% Club MENA, launched their second annual report showcasing the numbers of women on boards across many sectors in Egypt. The campaign aims to emulate the observatory’s model across several countries in the region.

Nissan’s regional operations supported the WoB’s initiative in publishing credible established data on the status of women on company boards in the country. The Japanese carmaker has also partnered with the 30% Club MENA to help increase the representation of women on boards in the automotive industry.

For the very first time, the 2020 edition of the Women Economic Forum (WEF) was held in Egypt, and several of Nissan’s top regional executives were in attendance and spoke to Business Forward on the sidelines of the forum to discuss details of their efforts to empower women in the corporate world.

Mike Whitfield, managing director of Nissan Motor Egypt S.A.E, told Business Forward about the importance they place on sponsoring the WEF to be held in Egypt and why the automotive giant is supporting the launch of the 30% Club MENA.

“When we look at Egypt from an investment point of view, it is very much one of the greatest potentials from an automotive perspective in terms of future growth. It is also a country which is making serious efforts to address [women’s] empowerment and diversity in the economy. I think out of all the countries in North Africa, it is an ideal venue to hold this conference,” he said.

With regards to the 2020 WEF, Raeda Al Sarayreh, corporate communications director for Nissan Africa, Middle East and India, added that it was “very critical that this event happens [in Egypt] because it is quite essential to the region,” particularly in the interests of “understanding the challenges across various countries and regions. Cultural differences usually help us understand the challenges but also make us understand what can work and what does not work in our region.”

When Whitfield was asked on why it is specifically important for more women to be on boards in the automotive industry, he said: “I think in any board you need to have a composition of complimentary views if one wants to play a role in the future. Simply put, women are by far a significant part of our market. They play a major role in the automotive market and the automotive decision-making process. They bring diversity and different thinking.”

Samar Elmnhrawy, human resources vice president for Nissan Africa, Middle East and India, added that having more women in the workplace in general across all sectors and industries “is important to bring different perspectives of how to operate differently.”

Supporting campaigns such as the 30% Club MENA is crucial in achieving this goal because “you will not be able to increase diversity in your workforce without having women at the top pushing the agenda. When you talk to a male business leader about why they do not have enough women in their organization, their answer is that they are not available which is not right. When you see [women] at the top level, it will change the mindset of the organization and the leaders to actually search for more females.”

On top of those reasons, she also emphasized the strong and logical business case for greater gender diversity on company boards and workplaces: “First of all, 50% of your talent are women so it makes sense that that is reflected on boards. Your stakeholders, your customers and your consumer base are naturally 50% women. You would be reflecting their best interests.”

Economically empowering women also brings with it many profound socio-economic benefits, according to Al Sarayreh. “It is very apparent that when you empower women financially, you empower the entire family,” she said. “I can mention one case study where one woman, who was empowered economically at the grassroots level, had a say on her daughters going to schools and finishing their education. When you are economically empowered as women, you have decisions on who goes to school and where the spending goes. The social and economic impact is quite big.”

Al Sarayreh is also chair of the steering committee of the 30% Club’s MENA chapter, and discussed in detail with Business Forward on what the partnership between the campaign and Nissan aims to work on in the foreseeable future, which includes helping the WoB scale up their operations to the wider region.

“We are exploring what we can do as Nissan with the 30% Club in terms of launching future initiatives, and of course helping the WoB take their model regionally. We are looking at [conducting] workshops across the region to talk about how we can create more credible databases on the number of women on boards and how we can measure progress. In the region, the biggest challenge we have is lack of credible data on the number of women on boards. Another challenge is we are starting from a very low percentage. It is as low as 2% in certain countries and up to 12% in other countries. We have big gaps between countries in the region and we want to make sure that we create databases across the region.”

On what the current obstacles and challenges are to women being on company boards and reaching high-ranking positions in the corporate world, Elmnhrawy and Al Sarayreh both claimed that women suffer from a lack of tools being provided to them to help move up in an organization, as well as a tendency of being overlooked for promotions.

Elmnhrawy said “the lack of visibility of women even within their organizations and within their societies” is one of the biggest challenges. “That is one thing. The other thing is the tools and pathways for them to progress towards these higher ranks. We need to identify them and then we need to give them avenues to actually progress. It does not come naturally. Once [women] are [in these positions], it will be easier. Since women are not there yet, we need to make sure that we provide the pathways for them.”

Al Sarayreh added “one of the challenges that we have seen as the 30% Club in MENA is the leaky pipeline. At the entry level, the workforce is divided between men and women 50%, but as you progress to mid-management or senior management positions, there is a leaking pipeline. The numbers of women get really low.”

“There was a McKinsey study that showed that for every 10 positions in senior management, women only get four. And if you go to the higher executive level that drops to one. I think that is the biggest challenge, the pipeline is not big enough to create that momentum for women to get on boards or to reach senior positions.”

She also believes that culture is a very significant obstacle to overcome, an issue she said that companies do not do enough to address properly. “Companies do not necessarily address gender diversity in a way that is a business case. Most of them probably address it because it is a necessity and it is good numbers for the company and promotes its image but they do not address the culture that empowers women to reach senior positions.”

Among the cultural attitudes that impede women making progress in the corporate world are questions over how much women can be committed and whether they will have enough time to work in senior positions if they are mothers, Al Sarayreh added.

Changing such cultures is one of the top agendas at the 30% Club, who address them by working closely with the highest-ranking members of companies to overcome them.

“What we do at the 30% Club is we work with volunteers who are very senior at their organizations. We work with CEOs, managing directors and members of boards because if you want to change the culture and make an impact, you have to start with a very strong voice at the very top. When you have that strong voice and accountability on delivery, we can change the culture. It takes time. It is not easy. There is no one solution that fits every single case, but we are hoping with more awareness and more involvement from member firms at the highest levels, that we can create that culture.”

This article has been edited for corrections since its original time and date of publication.

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