Bridging the Great Gender Gap: Women in Financial Services in the Middle East

Anunitha Thomas

Anunitha Thomas

By Anunitha Thomas

Aside from my vested biological interest in gender inequality, I’ve been inspired by the relative improvements in the standard of living and wages of people, especially for women across the world. I think it is now time to start focussing particularly on issues of women in the workplace. With this in mind, I have decided to write this piece on women in financial services for two reasons: in my short tenure working as a consultant, I have been placed directly within financial services firms both at Investment and Retail Banks. There have been many situations where I have strolled into meetings and been the only female in the room, which given I live in London can be quite unsettling and surprising given the closer to equal status of women in western society than most of the rest of the world. Secondly, there is this notion that financial business in general is an ‘old boys club’. Financialservices is amongst the most competitive sector and stereotypically masculine mathematically driven sectors. There is growing focus that some of these risk-taking behaviours that lead to the 2008-2009 recession could have been minimised if “Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters”[1].

Gender diversity, though flaunted in many prospectus, is often the disregarded as the unspeakable elephant in the room. However, diversity really does matter, globally women hold approximately 60% of all jobs in the financial services industry but only 19% of leadership positions are occupied by women[2].

Table 1: % of Board and Executive Committee(ExCo) members that are women in Major Financial Services Firms.

Table 1: % of Board and Executive Committee(ExCo) members that are women in Major Financial Services Firms.

The figures in Table 1 represents that there is an increase in the number of women in both positions of the board and within ExCo, however this increase has been far too gradual whilst over a third of ExCos in financial services firms are comprised only of males. There are tangible business implications of a gender diverse board such as 42% higher return in sales, 66% greater return on invested capital, and 53% higher return on equity. Females are a global consumer of financial services. They currently save USD13 trillion, and are projected to save up to USD18 trillion in the next five years, that is the current GDP of China[3]. Any major financial institution that can tap into the white space of women’s savings will have much to gain.

The rate of youth female literacy in the Middle East has risen dramatically from in 62.1% in 1990 to 87.9% in 2010. Although the number of women studying STEM subjects has not proportionally increased. This translates to the low number of women in, mathematical heavy, financial services firms with only a handful of leaders at ExCo level. Stella Cox, one of the few female ExCo members of Islamic finance investment firm DDGI was drawn to Islamic banking but faced many difficulties culturally to infiltrate a male only team as the clients were all conservative and were not used to seeing women in a working environment. After 15 years of working, Stella has noted that the situation surrounding woman has improved. Additionally, given the successes of women in the Malaysia where the central bank governor is a woman, and the large number of women who are scholars of Islamic law (sharia) and thereby hold ExCo positions, there is no woman CEO in any Middle Eastern Islamic financial institution though Islamic finance is growing at a consistent double-digit annual growth rate in the region from over USD10 billion to USD37 billion in 2019[4].

Stella Cox in nina-iraq

Stella Cox

The feminine touch can go a long way in attracting the untapped women’s finance market. The Abu Dhabi bank Al Hilal has launched a credit card that absorbs the smell of perfume, combined with discounts for popular female centric brands in order to lure female customers. Women in positions of leadership can assist in improving the access to capital for females, especially female entrepreneurs in the region, who often tend to lack the necessary collateral for loans (evident in that only 10% of funding for female entrepreneurs is provided by financial institutions). Ultimately, women in leadership in the can not only begin to break down cultural barriers, but also increase business profitability and most importantly, improve the business opportunities available to other women.


[1] Oliver Wyman 2014 (

[2] PWC 2015 (

[3] Harvard Business Review, (

[4] EY 2015, (—Capital-Markets/EY-world-islamic-banking-competitiveness-report-2014-15)

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