Bahraini women on boards: A lot achieved, still more to be done

Zawya spoke to Bahrain insiders about the progress made in the kingdom towards including more women on boards of directors

  
Image used for illustrative purpose. Bahrain Manama by Night.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Bahrain Manama by Night.

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Though the boards of Bahrain’s listed companies tend to feature only one woman at best, equal representation is not as far away as it once was. 

Until recently, progress in bringing women into boardrooms has been slow in the kingdom, and the business insiders Zawya spoke to are not keen on seeing quotas or targets enforced to speed it up.

Elham Hasan, the first woman to be a PwC partner in the Middle East and a veteran of many of the kingdom’s boards, told Zawya that for women to make a success of board membership, the right ones need to be recruited. She believes that a change in mindset is needed for the nation’s decisionmakers, but forcing change will have negative consequences.


Elham Hasan

Hasan spent many years during her working life as a woman presenting to a board of men and, later, as the only female board member. She reported always being treated well and with respect by the men she worked with, and she is pleased to see more women in leadership positions and on boards.

However, she said, the community is still dominated by men, meaning men recommend other men when it comes to filling board vacancies. “Men network more with their kind than the other gender. So for them to propose someone from the other gender, it’s not an easy thing for them.”

Hasan notes the danger of placing a woman on a board to, say, fill a quota rather than because she has the right credentials. “When men make mistakes, they are forgiven very quickly; when a lady makes a mistake, it’s never forgotten. I think we need to be sure we place the right people. Whatever we have built gradually we don’t want to lose by not having the right ladies on boards.”

Dana Buheji concurs with that perspective. The chief human resources officer at the National Bank of Bahrain (NBB) and a board member of Bahrain Islamic Bank (BIsB), Buheji is active in supporting other women to reach the level that she has. She has contributed to the founding of Bahrain’s Director Development Programme for Women (DDPW), but she believes that boards should be diverse in general, reflecting the organisations that they serve. “I definitely feel that women on boards is definitely a very important element, but more in support of the whole concept of diversity.”


Dana Buheji  Chief Human Resources officer at the National Bank of Bahrain.

Buheji was recruited to the BIsB’s board in February 2020 after NBB increased its stake in it. “I was selected because of what I do for the organisation, not so much because they were looking to introduce diversity to the board.” 

Buheji offers a surprising anecdotal reason for the lower board membership among women: Some women opt for early retirement when they reach the age and experience at which they might be considered for board membership, leaving a talent vacuum.

Asked whether affirmative action or quotas could be the way forward, Buheji said that there is a “whole spectrum” between maintaining the status quo and enforcing a quota of women on boards. “Simply put, I believe it always has to be based and driven by meritocracy. There has to be an added value of that individual, that professional, who is being invited to participate on any board seat, irrespective of gender.”

Echoing Hasan, she added: “If you speak to the decision makers, there area of concern is about awareness and exposure. They do not personally know […] ready female professionals that are available in the marketplace to offer them this opportunity.”

So what is the answer? For Buheji, it’s a combination of providing the right training and the right opportunities to network. DDPW’s Instagram page features the profiles of many women who have taken part in its programme so that they can be easily found by those looking for board candidates.

There can also be a cost barrier involved in accessing the right training, hence the support from Tamkeen, the Bahraini labour fund, to the DDPW initiative’s funding.

Mentorship also plays a major role, as Buheji notes: “It means a lot to get in touch with someone who has actually made it. The main reasons why some people opt to exit early [are that] either they feel they are faced with a challenge they cannot deliver on or they feel that life is going to get more demanding in the future, so they decide to opt out too early.”

(Reporting by Imogen Lillywhite; editing by Seban Scaria)

(imogen.lillywhite@refinitiv.com)

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© ZAWYA 2021

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