Breaking the Glass Ceilings of the Future

By Radhika Punshi, Founding and Managing Director, The Talent Enterprise

Unlike other parts of the world, women in the Gulf States make up over 65% of university graduates. They also consistently outperform their male counterparts in ALL subjects, including the STEM subjects. Yet, when it comes translating this success to the workplace, something strange seems to happen: only 30% of graduates joining the workforce at entry level are women – when you look at supervisor-level positions, that number goes down to 15%. By the time you get to management, it decreases further to 7% and at CEO level, we see a mere 3%. Essentially, companies lose half their female workforce at every stage of hierarchical transition.

Most employers I know agree that finding quality GCC National talent is challenging in a very tight labour market. Having 51% of the local talent pool and arguably their best human capital assets by educational standard walk away from their workplace is an additional challenge which benefits no-one. Especially since research shows that women in management and senior leadership positions perform better, in aggregate, than their male counterparts. Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their senior management teams had a 35% higher Return on Equity than companies with the lowest women’s representation.

According to a study conducted by The Peterson Institute for International Economics, based on 22,000 organisations in over 90 countries, firms with 30% or higher representation of females in senior leadership, were associated with a 15% increase in their net revenue margin compared to firms with more limited gender diversity. Our own research at The Talent Enterprise indicates that GCC national women on average have higher levels of psychological strengths, such as grit, resilience, growth mindset, comfort with ambiguity, etc, amongst other attributes which promote productivity and positivity in the workplace. In leadership positions, our nested analysis also indicates that this not only impacts the performance, contribution and engagement of themselves, but also has a pervasive, positive and productive influence on others around them – colleagues, customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders. What can employers do to leverage this largely latent talent pool?

Clearly, employers who are effective at supporting women in key career transitions have a better chance of closing the gender gap. Proactively managing key milestones and career transitions is critical, along with the judicious application of precision, focused assessment tools, such as The Talent Enterprise’s Attrition Risk Index, can all provide valuable insights at times when talent are most vulnerable. Such progressive employers will continue to have a clear competitive advantage over their rivals who do not.

Reversing the trend

While exploring the reasons behind this gradual loss of women as we move up the corporate ladder, one thing seems clear: for this trend to be reversed, female inclusion needs to be part of a company’s strategy, from the top down. In my experience, there are 3 things employers who successfully address these challenges, have in common.

Challenge assumptions
If an employer brand and Employee Value Proposition are not attracting, retaining and developing female talent, they need to identify what can be done differently to secure this workforce.

Change in the workplace requires questioning assumptions of what is “good” and “not good”, what works and what doesn’t. For example, there was a time when employees wanting to informally show their motivation and desire for promotion would stay late at the office. For practical reasons, women with kids are generally less likely than their male counterparts to be prepared to do this on a regular basis. However, many contribute more during core working hours, happy to get to work earlier, skip breaks or log back on later in the evening, making them at least as productive as the person who stays late. These types of flexible work arrangements are highly attractive to them.

Create an alternative to “wasta”
One of the key areas where GCC women lose out is in the area of informal networking, otherwise known as “wasta”. Because they often don’t have the same willingness or time to network, they find it harder to build relationships that can help them with career advancement.  Increasingly, forward-thinking employers are giving women access to structured relationship building resources within the workplace. For example, formal coaching, mentorship and sponsorship programmes are tools that can lift some of the barriers they face and help them progress professionally. They can also miss out on informal agenda – shaping and sense-making amongst leaders in particular. Organisations and women can benefit greatly by having their opinion formally solicited and included in setting priorities, rather than making assumptions and taking for granted opinions from the past as the way the company should go in the future.

Leverage their strengths
Although getting obstacles out of a woman’s way is key when it comes to their inclusion, recognising and harnessing their strengths is key in driving them forward and helping them achieve their potential. We’ve seen a rising number of employers focus on helping their female employees identify their strengths and growth areas so they can progress into fulfilling careers.

One of the more recent examples I have seen of this right here in the UAE is Dubai Airports.

In 2017, it launched the “Aspiring Women Programme”, which saw 20 Emirati female managers undergo a powerful nine-month journey with the aim of supporting their readiness into more senior roles. It is a  unique, immersive programme customised to the needs of the participants and includes modules on topics such as high impact communication, personal brand and presence, which was conducted in a real theatre with professional actors. The programme also includes bespoke case studies, specific training on how to network and navigate challenges through, role plays, and reflective discussions on topics including cultural bias in the workplace as well regular coaching and mentoring sessions. It ended with an extremely high impact TED-x style talk where each participant had to deliver sharing their personal narrative.

The experience was an eye-opener for the participants. During this period, they reported going through a noticeable mind shift: they felt more confident, envisioned their career prospects differently and even began implementing the techniques they had learned in their day-to-day roles. Their managers reported seeing positive changes too. These employees had gained greater self-awareness, higher willingness to take calculated risks and improved their leadership and management capabilities.

Going forward

Undeniably, women are part of this region’s future success. As such, there are only upsides to helping them break the glass ceiling in the workplace. Going forward, it is critical for leadership to take this on and be actively engaged in the change management process. This transformation has started already across a growing number of GCC companies in recent years. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I have a feeling its momentum will pick up and keep going.

Finally, whilst many of the battles for female talent have been lost in the past, it is also beneficial to pick the fights of the future which will have a lasting impact on the positivity and productivity of our region’s workplaces. Copying and pasting Diversity &Inclusion initiatives from elsewhere (the so-called “developed” nations, where female inclusion has often been falling in recent years), will have limited benefit in our neck of the woods. It also focuses on past failures. For instance, encouraging female presence and performance in STEM subjects is not a priority here – let’s get ahead of the game by focusing on leveraging female talent in BRINE – the Bio, Robo, Info, Nano, Eco technologies which will drive our economies in the future. Presenting women with a binary choice of “accepting” current corporate cultures or leaving is no longer good enough. Our research shows that everyone benefits from a successful inclusion of female talent, at all levels of the organisation, enabling them to shape the corporate culture of the future. The future starts now!


Radhika is co-founder and Managing Director of The Talent Enterprise. As an organisational psychologist and HR expert, she advises clients on strategic human capital issues and challenges, including building the competitiveness of local talent, with a key focus on youth and female inclusion. She is the first person from the MENASA region to be awarded a degree in Positive Psychology and served on founding Board of Directors of the prestigious International Positive Psychology Association and is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.