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Why it’s an uphill struggle attracting Emirati women into the banking sector

If attracting and developing Emiratis into financial services in the UAE remains a challenge, encouraging female Emiratis into the sector is more of an uphill struggle, despite the fact that they’re often better educated than their male counterparts.

Women still only comprise around 30% of most banks and financial services organisations’ headcount in the Middle East, according to a recent roundtable organised by HRinspireME and Insight Discovery. This figure doesn’t compare well with other locations where women usually make up around 50% of the workforce.

“30% of our employees in the UAE are females, and they tend to be in more junior positions – which I think is probably similar to just about every bank in the region,” said Steve Donovan, managing director at Citi Global Transaction Services.

Much like their male counterparts, women in the UAE tend to favour public sector career paths. Many financial services organisations have focused in recruiting more local candidates to comply with government-enforced quotas, but the female talent pipeline is particularly underutilised.

“About 70% of the students that come out of these programmes are women, and they are often far smarter than men,” said Donovan. “Further, as you know, any statistic will tell you that women are better educated than men in the Middle East. We just have to keep doing more and keep creating opportunities for women.”

There’s also the fact that local banks often struggle to attract and retain local women, because of the perceived lack of opportunities, suggested Rana Al Emam, head of business banking at HSBC Middle East.

“It’s not that local banks are not taking this seriously, but that they may lack the ‘firepower’ of international banks that can – by nature of their scale – offer more career opportunities,” she said.

While local banks are keen to recruit women, it’s rare that they make it to the senior ranks, she added. “You find them as Head of HR, or possibly at branch manager level.”

This problem is by no means limited to the Middle East. Women in finance are often ushered towards operational roles such as HR, investor relations, compliance or risk, while advisory and trading jobs are predominantly occupied by men.

The region is also struggling to offer sufficient opportunities for women at board level, something which may prompt the government to impose quotas in a similar vein to its Emiratisation initiatives, suggested participants.

Standard Chartered says it already offers the top performing 10% of its female employees formal sponsorship opportunities to go to top business schools. Citi, meanwhile, says that it sends junior Emirati female employees to London in order for them to gain valuable experience in Western markets.

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