Women on Boards – The American University in Cairo

The UN Global Compact’s Women Empowerment Principles are a set of principles for business offering guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. The initiative emphasises the business case for corporate action to promote gender equality. But it isn’t just businesses supporting and implementing the principles—academic institutions and in particular business schools can play a crucial role in providing support. This is what The American University in Cairo (AUC), in Egypt, has done. The university has developed a unique series of initiatives aimed at improving gender balance of corporate boards in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa region, by qualifying women to be appointed to corporate boards, sensitising male board members to gender issues, and advocating for policy and legislative changes that institutionalise gender diversity on corporate boards. I spoke with the Director of Institutional Development at The American University in Cairo, Ghada Howaidy, about this innovative programme.

Please provide an overview of current state of gender balance of corporate boards in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. What are some of the challenges? Why is this important?

The boardroom is where strategic decisions are made, governance applied and risk overseen. It is therefore imperative that boards are made up of competent high caliber individuals who together offer a mix of skills, experiences and backgrounds. The business case for increasing the number of women on corporate boards is clear. Women are successful at university and in their early careers, but attrition rates increase as they progress through an organisation. Women represent 60% of university graduates globally and 80% of consumer goods purchasing decision makers. Businesses recognise their value as employees and consumers. When women are so under-represented on corporate boards, companies are missing out, as they are unable to draw from the widest possible range of talent. Evidence suggests that companies with a strong female representation at board and top management levels perform better than those without, and that gender-diverse boards have a positive impact on performance. It is clear that boards make better decisions where a range of voices, drawing on different life experiences, can be heard. That mix of voices must include women. However, most large companies are led by men, so the real conversation regarding the willingness to pursue gender balance is a conversation among men in executive positions. As mentioned in a Harvard Business Review blog in November 2013, that conversation is between the progressive leaders pushing for major culture shifts and the male leaders who don’t yet see this as particularly relevant to their bottom lines.

Egypt is the most populous country in the MENA region with a population of approximately 92 million and with a labor force of almost 27 million, of whom approximately 6 million are women. Because of the lack of a robust legal and social structure that promotes gender equality in business in general, and on corporate boards in particular, women’s participation on corporate boards is very limited, particularly compared to other countries. The aggregate percentage of women on corporate boards in Egypt is below 7%, while in a country like Norway it reaches above 40%. However, the Egyptian constitution that came into effect in 2014, stipulates that 25% of local council seats are to be held by women. In addition, article 11 of the constitution says that the State shall ensure the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution. The corporate sector needs to catch up.

What is the Women on Corporate Board’s Programme and how did it come about?

The aim of the initiative is to improve the gender balance of corporate boards in Egypt and the MENA region by sensitising male board members to gender issues, qualifying women from different corporate sectors and outside the corporate mainstream to be appointed to corporate boards, and advocating for policy and legislative changes that institutionalise gender diversity on corporate boards.

The programme focus is on the one hand to sensitise male board members to gender issues, and qualify and support women for corporate board positions, and on the other hand, to advocate for policy and legislative changes to institutionalise gender diversity on corporate boards. This will be accomplished through multiple interventions over a period of time that range from awareness raising, networking, coaching and facilitation, to direct training for certification and lobbying.

What are the key features of the programme and how does it work? 

The initiative has multiple aspects. It looks at qualifying a pool of professional women to sit on boards and orienting select certified executive coaches/facilitators working with boards in Egypt. On the other hand the initiative also aims at developing a plan for engaging boards that includes leadership and coaching, as well as support policies aiming at increasing women participation on corporate boards.

The Women on Boards training and certification programme was piloted in Cairo, November 2014 and targeted female executives from the corporate sector, as well as female entrepreneurs, academics, civil servants and senior-level women with professional service backgrounds.

The programme is divided into two sections, a Corporate Governance Module (with both an international and a local outlook) providing a general understanding of corporate governance concepts, board structure and responsibilities as well as basic understanding of financial statements, internal planning, family business governance, etc.; and a Leadership Module, which aims at developing leadership identity, practicing leadership skills and managing vision and voice.

What have been some of the successes? 

One of the successes achieved by the programme is the development of a diverse consortium of international organisations, academic, non-governmental and governmental institutions to work on the different aspects of the programme. These include three implementing partners: the American University in Cairo School of Business, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Egyptian Corporate Responsibility Center – UNDP Project (ECRC), as well as a number of consortium partners including: OECD MENA Women’s Business Forum, the American Chamber of Commerce, and the Women and Memory Forum (WMF).

An informal peer group of the women who participated in the group was formed and is actively engaged through social media and online webinar meetings. This group provides a forum for discussion as well as a support network, which will work with the expansion of theme. The programme also attracted the interest of a number of PRME MENA member universities who are interested in partnering to develop a regional version of the programme.

On an institutional level the AUC School of Business has increased the number of women participating in its Dean’s Strategic Advisory Board.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place? 

The development of a strong consortium with multi-dimensional players is essential for developing a rich and strong programme. It is important to provide international best practices as well as local context of corporate governance in your training and conversations. Also look at enhancing both analytical proficiency and leadership skills of participants.

What is next for the programme?

After the success of the pilot training and certification programme a regional track is being explored in partnership with top regional business schools who are signatories of PRME.

With regards to the local initiative, the School of Business is also working closely with other consortium members on incentivising boards to increase women participation in their boards.

For more information or to learn more about how to implement the Women on Boards Programme in your institution, contact Ghada Howaidy at ghowaidy(at)aucegypt.edu


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