Sectors and specialisms:
Accounting and public practice

Bright future
Women working in finance in the Middle East and South Asia are starting to move into senior roles thanks to a growing respect for equality and a more flexible work ethic

Throughout the Middle East and South Asia, more and more women are occupying mid- to high-level positions in the finance sector. In these relatively traditional societies, women face challenges such as family pressure and long working hours, but many of them – and the companies they work for – are beginning to find ways to make women working in finance a norm.

In most countries in the region, the primary challenge that women working in finance face is balancing long working hours with family life. For women working in finance, a work day can mean more than 18 hours in the office, especially in accountancy and auditing firms. This results in very little time spent at home. ‘This is one of the challenges that women face in Pakistan and Bangladesh: the long working hours. There’s no flexibility such as working from home,’ explains Dr Afra Sajjad, ACCA’s head of education – emerging markets.

Even if they have full-time jobs, many women are still expected to care for children and, at times, elderly parents. For some, this may be a burden, while for others, stepping back from work in favour of motherhood is a choice. Ginnie Carlier, a partner with EY in Dubai, says: ‘When I talk to women there is a level of pride and a level of responsibility that they believe they owe to their families. They themselves don’t want to appear to be letting their families down. They believe these are their responsibilities and they want to do them well.’

Yet as economies develop and become more competitive, and costs of living rise, many women will need to continue working, and companies will want to keep them. To help women maintain a work-life balance, there is a lot that companies can do. The key is offering flexibility when it comes to working hours, allowing women to work from 
home, providing on-site childcare facilities, and increasing maternity leave, which ranges from a low of 45 days in the UAE to 16 weeks in Bangladesh. By providing such arrangements, companies can retain women, who in turn will have more opportunities to grow in their careers and be more committed to their employers.

‘This is about balancing life in a much more demanding world, so the more you can make accommodations for your talented employees, the more loyal, dedicated and productive they’re going to be,’ Carlier says.

By overlooking the adaptations that working mothers need, companies may lose very skilled, bright women who would otherwise be a big asset for them. More companies in the region are realising this and, indeed, making changes. Uresha Walpitagama FCCA, finance manager at the Sri Lankan Ministry of Finance and Planning, says: ‘Since the culture is changing, I think more companies are looking into the benefits needed to be given to women. Women are working in most companies, so they need to make sure they are retained.’

Oman’s example

In Oman, for example, companies including Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), Omantel, EY and HSBC are offering mothers flexible hours, nurseries and other arrangements to make it easier for them to balance work with family responsibilities. In fact, women working in finance in Oman are proving highly sought after and, in firms like EY and KPMG, the struggle to retain women has less to do with losing them to family responsibilities and more to do with bigger industrial companies offering them more lucrative jobs. Mili Ramaiya FCCA, assistant manager, advisory, at EY Oman, says: ‘You see a lot of women who reach a senior manager position and then we lose them to industry, where they take top positions.’

As women make strides in their careers in Oman, more of them are also finding positions on boards. There are no quotas for the numbers of women on boards but it’s understood that the female perspective is an asset. Ramaiya says: ‘I’ve seen so many companies that are literally fighting to get qualified women as their board members. They’re desperate to have women on their boards. They want to hear the women’s side of things.’

Haifa Al Khaifi, finance director at PDO, is among five female managing directors in her company. She says women are definitely respected by their male colleagues and, thanks to the support of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who has ruled the country since 1970, there are many Omani women ambassadors, ministers and managers. ‘I believe Oman is way ahead in terms of women in the workforce, number of women ministers and number of women in boardrooms in comparison to our neighbours. I think Oman is becoming more and more progressive,’ she says.

Sri Lankan Nisreen Rehmanjee FCCA, vice president at John Keells BPO Solutions India, says she has never felt held back by her gender and had many female role models while beginning her career. She says women are well represented in finance in Sri Lanka and India, and as more women graduate from business and financial studies, the number will rise. ‘In my whole career, even in school, I have never for a day felt that I was disadvantaged because I was female,’ explains Rehmanjee. 

Resistance from society

While in parts of the Middle East and South Asia it is becoming the norm for women to occupy prominent roles in finance or on boards, in Pakistan changes are slower. Ayla Majid ACCA, who heads a corporate brokerage house and serves on the board of the Islamabad Stock Exchange, says women not only have family responsibilities to bear, they also face resistance from society. Majid was the very first woman elected to a stock exchange board in Pakistan, and some men were reluctant to support her. She says: ‘It was a challenging role, I must say. To begin with, it was taking space in a domain which was primarily dominated by men. It was kind of a cultural shock for a lot of people here.’

Majid says that although Pakistan lags behind international standards, in the past 10 years more and more women have overcome social pressures. The environment is slowly changing for the better and there is more acceptance for women to work in the formal sector. ‘Pakistan is a little behind compared to the rest of the world, but that does not mean that the opportunities are not there or women can’t pursue a career in finance,’ she says.

Other countries in which there are very few women working in finance are Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. According to the United Nations, only 17% of Iraqi women even have jobs, a figure that is similar in Saudi Arabia. Very few women in Saudi Arabia are employed in finance because, according to local laws, they can work only in jobs in which they interact solely with other females. In Iran, meanwhile, the number of women working in professional and technical fields has risen noticeably since about 1990, especially in urban areas, but at about 15% it is still relatively low.

For many women who struggle to maintain a work-life balance, owning their own businesses often provides the flexibility they want, so throughout the region there is a rise in the number of female entrepreneurs. Whether it’s a catering business from home, a beauty salon or a shipping company, many women find that by having their own businesses they can still support their families financially, while spending time caring for their children and homes. Al Khaifi says: ‘Women entrepreneurs like the flexibility it provides, giving the balance they require to look after their families, as well as their business, and still managing to fit in some “me time”.’

As more young women in the Middle East and South Asia fill the universities and colleges, more of them show an interest in developing their careers before they marry and keeping their jobs after they have children, too. The general opinion from women currently working in finance in this part of the world is that the future is bright.

Walpitagama says: ‘Generally more women are entering into the finance field and the retention of women is higher compared to previous years. We know that women are equally capable.’ 

Sarah MacDonald, journalist based in Oman