Women directors few and far between in Gulf firms

DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - Religious and social norms are the main reasons why Gulf Arab firms have fewer women directors than Western companies, an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm concluded in a report released on Monday.

Women in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia hold an average of 1.5 percent of the positions on executive boards, compared with 13.6 percent in the United States, The National Investor said in the report.

“The participation of women in the economy in general is very low,” Amer Halawi, head of research TNI, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“It’s mainly because of social and religious reasons but there are also other factors related to the structure of society.”

The study was conducted in cooperation with the UAE’s Institute for Corporate Governance, it said.

The Gulf Arab region has been witnessing a financial and real estate boom, fuelled by revenues from a sixfold increase in oil prices since 2002.

But women have been largely marginalized as many people in the region still believe women belong at home.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and have to seek permission from male relatives to apply for jobs or marry.

In more liberal Kuwait, women have failed to win a parliamentary seat in the two polls since the legislature granted them the right to vote and stand as candidates in 2005.

TNI’s report, which looked at the boards of 582 companies across the region, found that representation of women on boards in Kuwait is higher than in Italy: 2.7 percent versus 2 percent. In Dubai, which led the region’s real estate boom, the average of women directors is 1.2 percent.

“There is a very strong belief globally from large companies that diversity is positive for companies, whether it’s cultural, religious, gender, experience or age group diversity,” Halawi said.

“Since the trend across the globe is more towards gender diversity, I don’t see why it should be different in the region... But because we are talking about social and religious framework, change is going to be very slow.”

Editing by Paul Casciato