If you are reading this comment piece it is safe to assume you either work in TMT or have an active interest in the sector. It is perhaps also safe to assume that you already know how much female representation there is in the sector within the MEA region. For a sector which touches every member of society and is no longer a luxury but a necessity, to the outsider it may seem odd that often half the customer population is almost nowhere to be seen in the senior ranks of these organisations.
Much of this is attributable to the level and quality of Corporate Governance that the supervisory board, where it is practiced, of an operator group or multinational vendor chooses to pursue. The supervisory board sets the strategy, the tone at the top and is where the organisations culture really begins. It doesn’t take long to look at a business and see how this tone manifests itself across the organisation.
Societal and cultural reasons for low levels of female representation at board level within the Middle East are often quoted with a resignation that things will not change and “that’s just the way things are”. While these attitudes may linger in some quarters, they are increasingly outdated, if Major Mariam Al-Mansouri, an F16 Fighter Pilot with the UAE’s Air force, can fly combat missions against extremists in Syria, the excuses for low levels of female representation seem even more out of touch with progress.
If boards are to uphold their fiduciary duty to direct the organisation in the interests of all shareholders, then having a diverse and experienced board of professionals is the way ahead. South Africa, with its King 3 corporate governance framework, is perhaps the best in the region; boards have high levels of independent and diverse members and as a result of good corporate governance often provide a better return on equity for their shareholders. Hawkamah, the MENA regions institute for corporate governance, created with S&P, a pan Arab governance index, which illustrated listed MENA organisations that practice better levels of corporate governance outperform their peers and are better environments to work in and have higher levels of staff engagement.
Talent, in the real sense of the word, will go where it is appreciated and while there may currently be a smaller number of talented women who have risen to senior positions than men, this group is set to grow and will go where they are appreciated and where they will receive genuine equal opportunity based on merit.
Diversity for its own sake or quotas is not the answer. Norway successfully implemented a 40% quota of board seats being reserved for women. This has resulted in a small number of women with many board seats and a resulting dilution of attention. Most counter-productive of all, quotas allow the poisonous whisper that the seat was not earned on merit but by box ticking. Diversity of experience and perspective as well as the character of board members is important and vital for the long term success and value creation of an organisation. It can be quite easy for a homogenous board to slip into cosy group-think and relaxed assumption. Recent business history shows just how damaging that can be.
Having more women in telecoms is not a politically correct cosmetic gesture; it is one of a number of steps to increasing levels of corporate governance, performance and shareholder return. It also positions the organisation as a preferred employer in a competitive talent marketplace. The start point to this rests with the board and, especially in the Middle East, with majority shareholders. Progress, if it is to be achieved, starts by setting an example at the top. Many cultures claim the origin of the saying “A fish rots from the head down” and this is illustrative of the importance a board plays in setting the direction of an organisation.