Women in management positions exclusively in the private sector is scarce globally and in the MENA region in particular


There is no doubt that women have made important gains in the global economy. Today, a third of the world’s enterprises are run by women and their management skills are increasingly recognized. There is increased evidence and recognition that gender balanced and diverse management teams at all levels of hierarchies produce positive business outcomes. Improved labour market participation rates of women is increasingly correlated with higher levels of growth and gross domestic product. Yet, gender stereotypes across all social and cultural contexts limit women’s economic contribution and benefits. Thus, the enormous talent pool that women represent with their ever-higher levels of education goes largely untapped.


Research from around the world concludes that women’s advancement in management is challenging. Almost insurmountable obstacles block their access to top leadership positions in companies and organizations; the so-called “glass ceiling”. Women start facing barriers at lower management levels generated from structural factors within corporations as well as from social and cultural constraints. At times it can be women themselves who are reluctant to pursue higher-level responsibilities. These factors hamper their career progression as compared to their male counterparts; this is referred to as the “sticky floor”. When women are able to attain higher-level management positions they often find themselves in management support functions that do not lead to the highest-level management jobs. This phenomenon is also known as the “glass walls”. Yet, increasingly global research is also finding that there are gender dividends to be gained by including more women in decision-making and increasing the labour participation of women. Studies show that by tapping into women’s skills and talent, business outcomes are enhanced and economic growth is accelerated.

So where is the blockage to women’s advancement in management in the MENA region? The MENA region has the lowest representation globally for women in management and leadership positions. Like other regions there is the “glass ceiling”, “sticky floors” and “glass walls” types of obstacles. However, low management figures are also a result of the low labour force participation rates of women in the region. Even when women do enter the labour force, their participation rates drop significantly with age, which is the time when women are experienced enough to assume higher positions and more responsibilities at work. This attrition or exit of qualified women at higher career levels from companies and organizations is often referred to as the “leaking pipeline”. It leads also to a shortage of women in senior management posts to serve as role models.

Data on women in management positions exclusively in the private sector is scarce globally and in the MENA region in particular. However, the ILO indicator on legislators, senior officials and managers, combining the public and private sectors in a single occupational category, gives an idea of the status of women in management in many MENA countries. The top ranking countries in the region (the occupied Palestinian territory and Tunisia) registered a 15 per cent share of women legislators, senior officials and managers, compared to an average of more than 30 per cent for countries in other regions where more data is available. Going further up the ladder, women in the region also report a weak presence as executives. Women executives accounted for 23 per cent in Morocco out of all executives, 17 per cent in the UAE, 16 per cent in Egypt and 7 per cent in Qatar1. As for women Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), the MENA region reported a share of 13 per cent women CEOs out of the total, versus a 21 per cent similar share in all developing countries’ regions2.

In the GCC countries, the share of women represented on company boards does not exceed 2 per cent3, with some countries showing progress. For example, in Bahrain companies with female board members increased from 12 per cent in 2010 to 14 per cent in 20144. In other parts of the region, there are some countries where women are more present on boards. A 2013 survey in Morocco covering a diverse group of companies reported that among the 76 companies listed in the Stock Exchange, 11 per cent had women holding board seats. In Tunisia, the percentage of women on the boards of listed companies was close to 8 per cent at the end of 2013 and in Egypt, it was almost 7 per cent in 20115. Women as chairpersons or presidents of boards are an even smaller minority across all regions. According to the ILO, no more than 7 per cent of companies surveyed had women as board presidents in the MENA region6.

In general, women in the MENA region are just starting to climb the corporate ladder. And, while very few are breaking through the glass ceiling to top managerial posts in the private sector, entrepreneurship is gaining importance as an alternative avenue for their economic empowerment7 even though it is still lower than in other regions. Detailed information on women entrepreneurs in terms of formality/informality, business and enterprise size is scarce. In the region a larger proportion of self-employed women are own account workers rather than employers, except for some GCC countries such as the UAE and Qatar. In all countries, however, the share of women out of all own account workers (men and women) remains small. Out of all employers, the share of women remains small in much of the region with the highest being almost one third in Bahrain (28 per cent) but less than 3 per cent in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria, according to the latest available data8. Nevertheless, some of the Gulf countries are reporting progress in the share of women as employers, with several more than doubling in the last decade: to 28 per cent in Bahrain, to 11 per cent in Oman and to 17 per cent in Qatar. Despite their low numbers as employers, women’s representation in chambers of commerce is increasing, especially as many chambers have set up women’s business committees (as in the GCC countries, as well as in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, occupied Palestinian territory and Yemen). Their aim is to support women entrepreneurs and respond to their needs.

Women in the MENA region face similar barriers as other women in the world to reach top positions in business and management. One of the key challenges, is that women face the double burden of work and family care responsibilities. A research study in the GCC countries indicated that women considered balancing work and family/life as the single most important obstacle to their career aspirations9. Cultural stereotyping and inadequate self-perception also hamper women’s career advancement. Gender biased legislation, as well as limited access to finance and networking can act as disincentives for women to enter or exit the labour market and to pursue careers.

Amidst the multiple challenges constraining women’s representation in the business world, responses are also gaining ground in the MENA region. Governments have introduced reforms at macro levels starting with legislation. Most reforms do not necessarily target women in business and management directly. However, as they aim to ensure greater equality of opportunities generally, they can ultimately influence women’s economic choices and outcomes. At the meso level, emerging alliances to support women in business are increasing in both number and outreach. The majority of MENA countries now have more than one businesswomen’s association to support female leadership and entrepreneurship. The employers’ organizations are also more active in supporting women to grow and sustain their businesses and increase their representation. At the micro level, more companies are introducing human resources measures to support women in their careers, as there is greater awareness of the added value of gender equality in the workplace and in management. As a result, programmes and initiatives are starting to take shape, including the promotion of measures supporting women’s career advancement.

It is undeniable that the MENA region is undergoing significant changes. Despite the turmoil in many countries, long-term stability and growth in the region will largely depend on the creation of decent work for all. On-going developments may also improve prospects for women to enter labour force and reach top positions in management and business leadership. Demographic, economic, and technological trends together with changes in national employment policies across the region represent opportunities for more equality between men and women. In addition, the growing talent and capabilities of women with their increased levels of education can be of tremendous benefit to companies and organizations. It is, nevertheless, important to stress that capitalising on these opportunities for greater gender dividends hinges upon gender sensitive legislative and social and economic policy frameworks.

Companies can play a major role in promoting women’s participation in the labour force by focusing on the gains that this would bring to their businesses and to social and economic development. Practicing equity, building gender-sensitive human resources management systems, creating enabling environments for women in the corporate world, establishing an accommodating social infrastructure and endorsing work – life balance arrangements for both women and men are all vital elements for successfully advancing women’s careers.

Meanwhile, employers’ organizations, business associations, trade associations, chambers of commerce and women’s organizations can also make a difference by empowering women to flourish in business and management in the region. Through their organizations, they are in a position to increase women’s presence in their own membership base, widen network and inter association/organization building, conduct research on the impact of a greater representation of women in business and management in the private sector, advocate for legal amendments and provide multi-faceted support to women entrepreneurs. Thus, the MENA region will reap increased economic and social benefits from one of its greatest resources, its women.