“It may at present be only a whisper. But it could get louder and louder. It is the voice of Islamic women in the Middle East protesting their longtime political and economic second-class status,” John Hughes wrote in his essay, “Islamic Women Rise Up” published in the Christian Science Monitor on June 29, 2005.
“Are women in the United Arab Emirates on the verge of breaking barriers to advance to top jobs in the field of Islamic finance?” That was one of the many questions I asked two years later when I was interviewing resources for a series of interviews I was writing for an international publication. Unfortunately, the article was not published but I did come away with a good education on the environment for women in finance at the time.
One person I spoke with was Dr. Lynda Moore, a professor at Simmons School of Management in Boston, Massachusetts, and recipient of a Fulbright award that allowed her to spend a year studying women business leaders in the UAE. She told me, “There has been a huge generational shift in the Middle East and the UAE. Education is encouraged and accepted for women because it translates into economic advancement as well as women’s advancement, both national priorities.”
The whisper Hughes heard has gotten louder and the shift Dr. Moore found has gained traction. In fact, the whisper evolved into a chorus proclaiming a Middle East women’s revolution in the burgeoning area of finance. A revolution fueled by a growing number of women at all economic levels. It is a revolution that’s empowering women to achieve acceptance in the financial workplace where they can break stereotypes with their professional acumen.
“Women Break Down Barriers in Mideast Finance” by Chris V. Nicholson appeared in the New York Times on June 27, 2011. The article profiles Hoda Abou-Jamra, the founding partner of a $40 million private equity health care fund that is based in Dubai; Maha Al-Ghunaim, founder of Global Investment House based in Kuwait that was initially a brokerage firm and investment bank but expanded into a private equity firm overseeing about $1.5 billion in four funds; and other women in finance.
Evolution of a Revolution
One woman in finance I had the privilege to interview was a Kuwati-born Managing Director of a United Kingdom-based financial services group. Based in Dubai, her responsibilities included managing and expanding high net worth business in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey.
This banker left Kuwait to attend college in the United States where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and an M.B.A. After that she worked at a Wall Street firm for over a dozen years in various capacities that included assignments in the United States, South America, and Europe and became head of the company’s London International Private Client Group.
Although she knew the Middle East well from her family connections, what she found moving back to the region was not the climate for women that she left almost twenty years earlier. And even though she was one of only a handful of top women, she found a major evolution of the role women played in the Mideast financial industry. She told me, “There is a dramatic evolution going on where women are moving into high profile jobs in the government and business sectors.”
When I asked, “Would you consider this more of a revolution than an evolution?” the woman responded, “Revolution is perfectly apt to describe what is happening. There is a groundswell of women’s voices and women taking advantage of opportunities in the political and business world.”
Challenges in Finance
“What are the greatest challenges you face?” brought interesting comments. “My major one is not about gender. We have a very competitive market here. We want the best talent we can find. Recruiting to get that talent is not easy. There is a talent gap in the area and seeking out the best people to work at our firm is an ongoing process.”
Being a woman in finance was not easy and the banker found, “It’s not a very level playing field here. I’ve been challenged to be taken seriously. The hard part is getting in to see the client then demonstrating my knowledge and expertise. Once I earn their respect, I am treated as a professional they can trust.”
When asked if she had any words of wisdom to share, she offered, “Knowledge and consistency will earn you respect. In financial services, it’s how you put together the product. You have to demonstrate your knowledge of the product and what the client needs. The client wants to see the value that you are bringing to them.”
“Why is this ‘revolution’ happening?” I asked. “Ten years ago I would not be here. Ten years ago I would not have even imagined this environment today. It is not a level playing field, as I said. But there is a tremendous amount of government and corporate support in making the transition for women to take on bigger roles in our economy.”
Painting the big picture, she said, “It’s not just one issue driving this but a convergence of issues. There’s the liberalization of the business environment and policies in general, not necessarily all about women. The UAE is in the forefront to provide opportunities for women. Women are gaining political power. And technology in many different areas is making life easier so that women are able to establish a work/life balance.”
According to a 2004 UAE government report, 37.5% of women held professional positions in financial institutions. Women had made their way into office buildings. However, I wanted to know if women would be able to work their way up the corporate ladder and I got this response, “Maybe in five to ten years. The number of women in banking is growing. Is it easy for them? No. But the environment is changing dramatically. It is going to much easier to walk the stairs. These women have role models plus lots of government and corporate support. Women are getting smarter and will be part of our best talent. Easier doesn’t mean, though, that there will be a level playing field. It will be tough. They will need guts, determination, and good business acumen to get to the top.”
Over the past six years, the shift has gained momentum and women are breaking down barriers in Mideast finance. Perhaps they heard and acted on words from this banker who suggested, “Remember tenacity. Continue to make sure you’re at the cutting edge of your field. Get the education you need. Acquire the knowledge you need to be the best. Do not take ‘No’ for an answer. The opportunities are increasing for women.”
The opportunities are there for a financial career, a career that will become part of the women’s revolution in Mideast finance.