UAE women keen on boardroom perspective but face glass ceiling

13 March 2023 4 min. read

Female leaders in the UAE are convinced that they can add value to the boardroom, with a majority believing that they have the skillset needed to lead at their workplace. However, over 80% of these ambitious and confident women say that they struggle to break through the glass ceiling – and expect more support in the process.

As pat of its wider research into the position of women in the labour market (which aligns with Women's History Month), global management consulting firm Kearney canvassed the views of women across the UAE on how they perceive career growth –and what is potentially holding them back.

One of the survey’s key findings is that women are bolder in their drive to leadership than is perceived by many. 8 in 10 women in the UAE workforce said that progressing to top leadership positions is key for them professionally and personally, and over 7 out of 10 “feel” they have what it takes to lead.

Isabel Neiva, Chiara Riffaldi - Kearney

To what extent women can deliver on their ambitions depends for a large part on the organisational context, and the support they receive, said Kearney.

In the public sector for instance, the UAE government has a adopted a number of relatively progressive women-friendly policies, and as a result, women make up 66% of the public sector workforce, with their cut of the leadership roles at 30%, according to the latest available data from the Government of Dubai and Dubai Women Establishment.

“The last decade has seen multiple policies that support inclusivity and diversity come into play, aimed at facilitating women’s role in the workforce, as part of We the UAE 2031 Vision, as well as the realisation the UN SDG Goal 5 of achieving gender equality. While there have been positive strides towards a more equitable work environment at a national level, the private sector lags behind,” said Isabel Neiva, a partner at Kearney.

Asked about what areas they feel the private sector could and should do more, the female survey participants pointed at a number of deficiencies. Only 1 out of 5 women feel their company’s organisational culture sufficiently encourages them to lead, and 18% even said they face gender discrimination by their coworkers.

Additionally, only one quarter of women claimed that they receive regular training and development – which is key for skills and capabilities development, including interpersonal leadership skills – and less than a quarter said they are offered opportunities for regular career reviews and/or promotions.

Further reading: Women aspiring executive roles face structural barriers, finds Bain study.

According to Neiva, business leaders in the private sector have a major responsibility to up their efforts towards women. Not just from an ethical, or even ‘tick the box’ perspective.

More women in the workforce can add billions to UAE economies according to a recent PwC study, an effect which is compounded by the fact that a more diverse leadership team has been found to positively impact company financials.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are proven pillars of success and provide the basis for future growth of organisations,” said Chiara Riffaldi, a partner at Kearney.


In its report, Kearney packages a number of recommendations for leaders seeking improvement. These include: providing women with the right support, increase training that support career progression, making performance management more woman-friendly, setting diversity targets and publicly stating them, and simply including women in the selection of open leadership roles.”

Key is however that the commitment comes from the top. Riffaldi: “A forward-thinking approach must be instilled from the top of the hierarchy, from the senior leadership team, trickling downward into management teams and the workforce.”

Recently, a number of frontrunning organisations (including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Accenture, and Raytheon) signed a pledge to advance the number of women in UAE leadership positions.