Greater representation of women in boardrooms and management levels remains a chimera. Talk alone will not solve it. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The “glass ceiling” is an apparent challenge in the UAE, as last year the ACCA reported that women around the GCC account for 2 per cent of board position. They also fill 17 per cent of all executive roles in the UAE financial industry.

Four decades have passed since management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling” to describe the invisible barrier blocking the way for women to progress to senior positions. In the financial services sector, the ceiling seemed to be made of toughened glass.

But does the metaphor still adequately encapsulate what’s happening today, or has the quest for gender balance shifted its focus?

London Business School alumnae Sarah Bates, founder of the Diversity Project, Chair of the Diversity Project Charity and former Chair of St. James’s Place Wealth Management Group, and Clare Woodman, Head of Morgan Stanley’s European, Middle East and Africa division, have a wealth of insights to share.

Despite the #MeToo campaign and the attention given to the gender pay gap, attempts to increase both the number and advancement of women in the financial sector are moving slowly. “The pace is not where any of us would like it to be,” says Woodman. “The metrics are not showing the direct result of this significant momentum we have at the moment.”

Always playing at catch up

Bates agrees, saying that in her field of investment management, “Something hasn’t changed.”

She notices that there seems to be more female fund managers aged over 55 than younger women entering the profession and recently heard that only 13 per cent of the graduate applicants to a large asset management company were female. Something seems to be putting women off opening the door to careers in financial services long before hitting the glass ceiling is even a possibility.

Bates questions whether the recruitment process attracts only “a certain type of very competitive and capable alpha male or female” to investment management. To reach the broadest range of candidates, companies need to scrutinize every stage of how they recruit.

Finetune the recruitment

This starts with job adverts in which, Woodman says, the style of language makes a huge difference. Bates agrees. “You have to be very careful about specifying candidates’ qualities,” she says. “There’s academic evidence that if you use language like “highly competitive”, “warrior” and “outstanding”, you put off most members of the human race.”

When it comes to shortlists, she is very clear: “If you haven’t got women on shortlists, you must jolly well ask why not.” Woodman recommends that recruiters think more broadly – going back to look at candidates for a second or third time, or enlisting the help of an additional search firm to see if different names come up.

Pick from same pool

Hiring people from the same background who all think alike actually increases risk. There’s less debate, fewer questions are asked and ideas go unchallenged. Lack of diversity is a cause of failure, and greater diversity can be the antidote to their recurring in future.

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, points out: “Groupthink was the reason most banks – as well as many regulators, central banks and academics – failed in 2008.”


Academic research indicates that employing a greater proportion of women acts as a restraining influence on the riskier investment behavior of men. Mixed gender teams of fund managers outperform funds managed by single-sex teams by balancing out risk and producing fewer volatile returns.

Such creative and financial benefits of mixed teams show that there are no winners in a workplace battle of the sexes. Instead, men and women who want to reorganize the way we work are joining forces, both within companies and through organizations.

In 2016 Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, was invited to lead a review into the representation of women in senior management in the sector. Her report, “Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services”, revealed that only 14 per cent of executive jobs were held by women.

The report’s recommendations became the backbone of the Women in Finance Charter, which asks financial services firms to commit to four key actions:

• Appoint a member of their senior executive team to be responsible and accountable for gender diversity and inclusion.

• Set and publish internal targets for gender diversity in their senior management.

• Publish progress annually against these targets in reports on their website.

• Have an intention to ensure that the pay of the senior executive team is linked to delivery against these gender diversity targets.

Gadhia’s report also identified a “permafrost” in the financial services sector’s mid-tier – women were either failing to progress or just leaving. The common assumption is that women fall out of senior roles because they leave to have children, but the research found this was simply not the case. Women who didn’t have children were just as likely to tread water at work or leave.

“They leave when they don’t think the management team supports them and they leave to perform other highly demanding roles within or outside the industry. One of the most important areas a firm has to work on – which never gets enough attention – is the way managers develop talent.

“Women have a tendency to be less vocal about their aspirations. Even when they are, managers have not always been open to thinking of different leadership styles.”

Working from anywhere

What is the solution to developing and retaining female talent? Part of the answer lies in rethinking how business is done. Woodman and Bates agree that the “presenteeism mindset” needs to go, for a start. Keeping in tune with a generation used to communicating and contributing remotely means businesses must make as many roles as possible open to agile working.

While being physically located in an office may no longer be essential, feeling supported within the organisational structure remains vital.

Focusing on the glass ceiling may not be helping bring about change; what does help is being committed to creating inclusive and flexible working environments and to increasing the number of women working at every level in the sector.

Gender balance is not just a “nice to have”. With algorithms increasingly automating tasks, the way companies will differentiate themselves – and protect their bottom-lines – is through creativity and innovation.