Barriers to Female Leadership in the MENA Region and Solutions

Barriers to Female Leadership in the Middle East and North Africa Region

Worldwide, the labor realm has transformed dramatically over the last decades. Declining fertility rates in various regions, elevated migration to fill the labor gaps, search for security and avoidance of conflicts, advanced access to education, and varying degrees of economic development and technological innovation have all led to shifting economic landscapes. These factors have also resulted in the empowerment of women around the globe. In some nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women have remarkably advanced their potential. They increasingly participate in economic activities asserting their presence in the business realm. However, the MENA region is currently experiencing turmoil with considerable social, economic and political transformations underway. Given this circumstance, women are attempting to adjust their economic and social contribution and establish careers in the extremely competitive private sector. Though some women have succeeded in climbing the ladder and penetrating the glass ceiling or invisible barriers, in business leadership, many women leave the corporate realm mid-career due to compounding obstacles, leading to what has been termed as the leaking pipeline of women’s talents; however, there are strategies that can improve women’s leadership in the region.

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Exploring Inequalities

Data on women in top management, particularly in the private sector, are limited. However, according to a survey conducted on women by the ILO in 2015, chief executive officers in the MENA region indicate that the region has the lowest female representation globally. The survey indicates that the MENA region has a share of 13% of female CEOs compared to 21% typical share in all the developing nations . This survey is in line with the World Bank study carried out in 2009-2015, indicating the same trend. The World Bank survey reveals that only 5% of the covered firms in the MENA region have women as top managers . The representation percentage is also the lowest one globally. The table below indicates the percentage share and number of male and female CEOs according to the ILO 2015 Company  Survey.

 L.A. and CaribbeanPacific and Asia AfricaCEEMENATotalTotal excluding 3 CEE countries  
Male CEOs (percent)60847455877479
Female CEOs (percent)40162645132621

According to the 2019 World Bank report, female representation in organization boards is also low. In Asia and Latin America, the representation is around 6-9%, while in GCC nations, it is less than 2% [3]. Though in some MENA nations the situation is better, female representation in company boards is low, as the report indicates that only 12% of board members in the MENA region are women [2]. Women as presidents or chairpersons of the board are few across all regions. A company survey by the ILO conducted in 2015 indicates that only 7% of the companies surveyed had a female board president in the MENA region . These surveys reveal the wide gap between men and women in the companies’ top management in MENA and other regions.

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Barriers to Female Leadership

Women in the UAE face similar barriers as women in other parts of the MENA region and the world as a whole when trying to attain top positions in management and business. The glass ceiling is a term used to refer to invisible barriers that women experience while attempting to achieve top leadership. The term labyrinth is another concept commonly used to refer to complex paths and channels that women are required to go through compared to their male counterparts to climb to the top leadership. Women in the UAE and MENA region face complex challenges of inadequate self-perception and cultural stereotyping. Women are also compounded with work and family burdens, care responsibility, financial access limitation, and gender-biased laws as well as limited networking. Additionally, the UAE and MENA nations’ labor and economic environments have positioned females at a weak starting point for catching up with their male counterparts in terms of business leadership representation.

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Weak Starting Position

The UAE and regional countries’ labor markets place women at a weak starting point. Women in the UAE and MENA nations register the lowest workforce participation [4]. The rates reduce considerably with age, which is the period when women have enough experience to take more responsibilities and high positions at work. For instance, in the UAE, female workforce participation peaks at 40% between 25 and 34 years of age and decreases to less than 25% between 35 and 44 years, the time when career achievement becomes more apparent . Many nations of the MENA region also experience women dropping out at key promotion points. For instance, in Qatar, 68% of women are active at the age of 25-30, with only 50% of these remaining active at the age of 40-44. Women’s employment profile in terms of vertical job distribution also minimizes their opportunities of reaching top leadership positions. Within the corporate realm, women mostly manage the support functions, such as public relations, human resources, and others . Women in these positions can climb up the ladder, but such experience prohibits them from moving along the vertical pathway that leads to top leadership. The poor starting point is the main invisible obstacle that blocks women from attaining top leadership in corporations.

Combining Family with Work Responsibilities

In the UAE and most MENA nations, the existing social norms consider women as children bearers and primary carers. Therefore, the most prevalent model of the family in the UAE involves the “female carer” and “male bread winners,” followed by female part-time earners and male full-time earners . The dual earners family model is still not common in the UAE and the entire MENA region. Time work survey indicates that women in the UAE spend seven times more time than their male counterparts in child care and other housework. In the absence of appropriate social support services providing quality family and domestic care, females struggle between two overdemanding obligations, which, considering the occupation requirements in the extremely competitive corporate realm, can affect their career improvement. A research study in MENA countries shows that women adjusting to family life and work is the most critical barrier to career advancement . It is also the main reason that women have for rejecting promotion since they feel that new professional obligations will demand sacrifices, and they do not want their care and family responsibilities to be compromised by their careers. Therefore, since the care burden is coupled with unaffordable and inadequate social services, balancing work and family responsibilities becomes the main challenge to women’s career advancement.

Women’s Self-Perception, Culture and Stereotyping

The convectional cultural norms that define men and women’s responsibilities and roles within the UAE and MENA societies form the pattern of influence, thoughts, perception, and altitude in the organizational realm. These can limit the advancement of women’s careers significantly if echoed by education systems and media . In the corporate sphere, there are two perceptions influenced by gender stereotypes, including the perception of female capacities by others and working females’ self-image as well as women’s self-perception of their leadership abilities. Women’s stereotyping by others develop an extra barrier for women who attempt to climb to the top leadership since they must overcome premeditated ideas that are not proven on the basis of their performance. For instance, research on the female executives conducted in the UAE, Tunisia, and Sudan indicates that women’s excellence in leadership positions makes them endure cogitative distortion, lack of sympathy, and negative feelings, rendering women’s place of job a hostile environment . The gender bias in working areas starts when women are classified as risky staff, especially those with children. In terms of self-perception, most women do not see themselves as equal to men in working places, and this aspect also forms a significant barrier to their career advancement.

Biased Legislation

The legal framework underpins females’ participation in the country’s labor force, and as a consequence, it affects women’s development and progress. The legal framework also influences motivation and human resource policies in corporations. They can form disincentives or incentives for women to exit or enter the labor force and advance careers. Even if the UAE and most MENA countries’ constitutions demand equality between women and men, transition and implementation mechanism regarding these principles is missing . For instance, personal status law covering marriage, relations, divorce, family, and inheritance in the UAE and other regional nations is based on conventional patriarchal family roles that do not embrace gender equality. Moreover, it is argued that gender discrimination is accentuated by interlinkage between cultural and social norms as well as practices existing in numerous Arab societies, and that is mainly established on the basis of individual status codes. Most laws that advocate for legal gender equality in the UAE and the region are considered to possess little practical value terms since personal and family laws have an overriding impact, even when they contravene provisions of the constitution, such as non-discrimination. Rules and policies can be particular obstacles for women with business aspirations who seek influence and autonomy. Additionally, even though sexual harassment laws exist in many MENA countries, gender-based violence awareness is insignificant in the region. Moreover, insufficient effort is put to immune women from sexual harassment at the workplace. Such discriminatory legislation acts as an obstacle against women’s career advancement.

Financial Access Limitation

A critical issue obstructing or supporting female entrepreneurs, especially in establishing and growing their enterprises, is the access to finance due to lack of property as credit collateral. In numerous cases globally, access to credit limit is not pure gender discrimination but an entrepreneurial problem for nascent enterprises. However, access to credit limitation, when combined with other gender-associated factors, such as discrimination on inheritance and property rights, luck of property, customs, and legislation, become problematic for women . Social norms tend to place resource or financial control on men as heads of families regardless of their economic activity. In the UAE, for instance, most refusals of entrepreneurial loans for both genders are due to the lack of acceptable loan security. However, women entrepreneurs are twice more likely than men to be affected by these collateral requirements. MENA nations typically experience these challenges due to conservative lending, the intricate application process, collateral requirement, and high interest rates. Even if insufficient data exist on gender disparity in financial access, the recently available data from the International Finance Corporation on the proportion of loans guaranteed to formally owned small enterprises indicate that female-owned enterprises in the MENA region receive less than 5% share . The World Bank study on men and women with an account at the credit union, banks, and other formal financial institutions shows a significant gender gap as in many MENA nations men’s percentage is twice that of women’s one . Financial access limitation is a common issue among men and women but it is more complicated for women due to other gender-related factors, hence becoming the major obstacle for women to reach high positions in the business.

Limited Networking

Networking enhances professional and social relations within the corporate environment and facilitates mentoring, information exchange, and lobbying. It is also considered an essential channel for leadership aspiration. Women’s networking nature that they build appears to be less effective than men’s one and offers limited access to influential connections. In the UAE, for instance, old boy networks dominate enterprise world, and they prove difficult for women to penetrate . Mostly, men are not likely to welcome female colleagues, and men in high positions tend to channel advancement opportunities to their fellow men due to the perception that they are more likely to succeed than women. Women also may not be comfortable networking in such a social context and may be unable to interact beyond working places due to cultural factors or family commitments as well as existing traditions. Female respondents from a study conducted in the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait explain that due to women’s concerns about their reputation, female managers avoid casual networking established at working places, and this issue pushes them to the edge of professional socialization process . The weak networking is an obstacle to the progression of women, especially when combined with other personal connections based on power and other forms of influence on professional development regardless of merits. The dependence on social clout is widespread in the Middle East and North Africa region and tends to influence women who are not appropriately connected.

Strategies to Improve Female Participation in Leadership in Middle East and North Africa Region

Since there are many challenges that limit women’s presentation in the corporate and business realm, the UAE and the entire MENA region must put more effort in response to these issues. Governments must establish reforms, starting with legislation at the micro level. Corporates must also develop human resource strategies to support women in their professionalism. Women alliances must be set to support women in their career advancement. Among the strategies that can improve women’s participation, there are legal reforms, company strategies, and increased female networking through businesswomen associations.

Legal Reforms

Various reforms have been established in the UAE and most countries of the MENA region to support women. However, most reforms are not targeted at women in management and business directly. They aim to enhance opportunity equality that may later influence women’s outcomes and economic choices. However, more reforms must be introduced toimprove female participation in leadership. The UAE and the entire MENA region should include non-discriminative provisions in their constitutions. Such laws may consist of increasing paid maternity leave from three months provided by most MENA nations to at least six months. Gender wage imbalance should also be illegalized to ensure equality between genders, changing women’s self-perception. Together with such reforms, governments should establish supporting institutions to promote economic empowerment of women. These institutions should be full-fledged ministries particularly committed to women’s issues and promote opportunities and equality for women at the job. The government should enhance regulations protecting paid parental leave and criminalize discriminatory employment action as well as sexual harassment. Laws should also be formulated to ensure that gender equality is exercised in the entire education system to guarantee that women are equipped with appropriate career skills. Regulatory and legal reforms can serve as an essential catalyst to enhance women’s participation in leadership.

Company Measures

Companies should promote awareness of the essentiality of management’s gender equality. Executive training on the importance of gender balance can be one of the most effective strategies for career advancement among women. The companies’ board chair, senior executive team, and chief executives should be trained on diversity and equality issues and create clear accountability and governance mechanism to promote gender equality in the entire company. The top management must regularly demonstrate and articulate an individual commitment to diversity and equality. Company management and leaders should take individual responsibility for delivering diversity and equality objectives and targets, and this goal must be included in their personal performance evaluation review.

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Companies can also enhance women’s participation in leadership by assigning challenging and visible roles to women as well as exposing them to all organizations’ functions and strategies. The focus should be paid to develop self-belief and self-confidence among women and establish a portfolio of competencies and skills for leadership. Companies should also make career advancement and promotion path prospects clear for women. They should cut gendered career paths to save women from getting stuck in career silos that are historically associated with women, such as support roles,  communication, and human resources. Companies should be explicit on areas to progress women and help them acquire experience and skills to drive and manage the businesses on operational and technical positions. Companies should also create a culture of conscience and inclusion to promote women into leadership by building the insight, desire, and capacity of individuals to think, lead, act, and make decisions with the intent of including all genders.

Promotion of Female Networking

Since poor networking is among the main challenges for women’s participation in leadership, the UAE and MENA region should advocate for women organizations and networking through businesswomen associations to promote female entrepreneurship and leadership. Government ministries and humanitarian organizations should advocate for developing senior female networks, such as female executives and women in business networks, to enhance networking. Profiles and a database of board-ready females together with training on organization governance skills, mentoring, inspirational incentives, and role models for upcoming female leaders should be established. Female organizations and networks should be considered a crucial asset by the government in promoting positive initiatives in gender equality, advising on improvement, and constructively critiquing measures. Networks should partner in leveraging support by sharing lessons, working together, collaborating on initiatives, and prompting public opportunities to enable female leaders to become more visible and increase their effectiveness by attracting like-minded organizations. The gender ministry should mobilize a cross-sectorial strategic advisory organization for both men and women. Government and non-government bodies should concentrate on promoting female networking and organizations to establish gender balance on boards and improve organizational performance and the entire national economy.  


In conclusion, female leaders remain a minority in the UAE and the entire Middle East and North Africa region; in business leadership, many women leave the corporate realm mid-career due to compounding obstacles. These obstacles are deep-seated and multifactorial as they have existed for centuries. Perceptions and problematic beliefs held by both women and men are the main barriers to female leadership in the MENA region. These invisible barriers are individual mindsets, institutional frameworks, lifestyle choices, and community customs. Work and family responsibilities, financial access limitation, gender-biased laws, and limited networking are among the main barriers to female leadership in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Labor and economic factors are also among the obstacles to female leadership, and they position women at poor starting points, making it challenging for them to reach the top leadership in business due to insufficient experience. Most MENA nations have introduced various measures to deal with gender inequality, but more effort is required to address these barriers. Both government and corporations must adopt appropriate strategies, such as regulatory reforms and promotion of gender equity, to enhance female leadership in the Middle East and North Africa region. Companies must position women in areas where they will achieve the required experience to lead businesses. Female networking is also important in the promotion of women’s entrepreneurship and leadership.

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