Committed to gender equality and women empowerment, whether it is in business place or other sectors of economic life, the French Business Group has signed earlier this month, the CEO statement of support for the Women’s Empowerment Principles, alongside with 22 French multinationals and smaller groups established in the UAE.

Led by Societe Generale, the campaign was supported by French embassy in the UAE.

Partnership initiative of UN Women and UN Global Compact (UNGC), the WEPs covers seven broad areas of engagement, committing signatories to action on human rights, nondiscrimination, health and safety, education, public reporting, and other principles related to gender dynamics.

Investing in women and girls, key to sustainable development

Gender equality is an opportunity for businesses to improve their own performance.

According to UN, by closing gender gap, companies benefit from higher retention. Moreover, « the companies with at least one women in senior management tend to see higher annual performance ».

McKinsey Global Institute finds in its 2015 report, that if women fully participated in formal labour markets, the world GDP would increase by $28 trillion by 2025.

Some $2.7 trillion could be added to the regional GDP by the same year, meaning a 47% increase in GDP over a decade.

The UAE aspires to become a model in gender equality by 2021.

According to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the UAE ranks the second highest among Arab countries in terms of constitutional rights equality.

« We (the UAE) have undoubtedly moved in the direction of gender equality », states Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Cabinet Member and Minister of State for Tolerance. But « achieving gender equality remains a work ».

Gender gap remains bigger in private sector 

The World Bank estimates that the UAE’s female labour participation rate for 2017 was 41%, compared to the global average of 49%.

In 2015, the UAE government established Gender Balance Council in aim to enhance work environment by giving women equal opportunities in the public sector.

« We are very lucky to be here in the UAE. The government of the UAE has almost 9 ministers women (and it improves), says Mahmoud Al Burai, Representative of the United Nations Global Compact in the UAE « but (…)  the private sector is still behind ».

This challenge remains global.

The 2017 Women in the Workplace McKinsey report states that “women remain significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline”, adding “from the outset, fewer women than men are hired at entry level. At every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines ».

At S&P 500 companies, women hold less than 5% of CEO positions. In France, « among the 40 biggest companies in the stock exchange (CAC40), there is only one that is led by a woman CEO. (Engie) One out of 40 », deplores Marina Hashim, MD and CEO of EDF in the Middle East. «So we are very far from parity, it is not even 20 per cent, it is only 2%”.

« Allowing women to compete for the CEO position would offer more candidates and end up with the best person for the job», says Mrs Hachim, who is also president of the French chamber of commerce in Abu Dhabi (FBG).

According to Ludovic Pouille, the French ambassador to the UAE, “it is the burden of history”, that men dominated over the past 2,000 years, and it “will take some time for women to get some power positions in the private sector ».

By signing the UN initiative, a company makes a public commitment to its principles.

Empowering women through simple steps

At Thales, historically men dominated company specialized in advanced technology for civil and defense, the trend has started to change since a while.

One of the WEPs signatories, Thales Group puts on women executives. « The group is supporting diversity and inclusion. Gender and talents are seriously addressed», says Mireille Nader, manager at Thales International and head of the FBG’s WE Committee. «The Group is encouraging females and opening for them to opportunities to take responsibilities at senior levels». Speaking about initiatives that the company has put in place to raise the presence of female leaders, Ms Nader mentioned as exemple, the improvements in maternity management « At Thales, the maternity leave is payed up to 3 months. Moreover, fathers have also the right to parental leave with one week payed by the group. The Group has also introduced flexible hours during the last 3 month of pregnancy». But these mesures are not the only ones. « At Thales, we have programs of mentoring as well. We want to attract young talents. But it is not so easy to attract the targeted number of females», adds Ms Nader. « On the global level, the situation improves in the companies, but it is still not ideal. Women are still less payed than men. They lack of self-confidence very often, they are afraid of failure. What we need, as women in general, is to try to break the glass-ceiling and exercise our rights», she states.

Yet, « there are some simple steps that can be adopted to implement the empowerment of women at work and in society, like confidence building measures or education », declares Mr Pouille.

At Societe Generale, one of the leading French banks, « nearly half of the board of the bank are women », says Richad Soundardjee, Chief executive officer, Societe Generale Middle East.

« At SG we are proud to have been one of the first international group to become signatory of the WEPs», he adds.

Société Générale, which signed the WEPs at the Group and regional level in 2016, has been active in putting the principles into practice in the UAE and the wider region as well as encouraging its peers to become signatories.

Among diversity-related initiatives that impact global economies, the firm focuses on education. « As signatory we have therefore made a statement and we have also started to act, by adopting in particular the principle number 4 -Promote education, training and professional development for women- under which we have launched The Circle, a program for financial literacy for women, in partnership with the Dubai Business Women Council», concludes Mr Soundardjee.

E. Levesque