On the up: The rise of women bankers in the Middle East

Megha Kumar our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 05 April 2023

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increased demand for women private bankers, especially at a senior executive level in the Middle East. Why? For several reasons:

- Women are becoming increasingly empowered across the region and are gaining more rights, including being able to make their own financial decisions

- Asset control is increasing. Globally, women are expected to be custodians of 34% of the world’s wealth this year. Specifically in the UAE, women are projected to control $140 billion of assets by the end of 2023 

- Gender diversity is good for business with a strong, positive correlation between diverse executive teams and financial performance 


I’ve been working with CEO’s in this region for over 14 years and now more than ever, they are actively looking to attract and recruit women wealth managers into executive level positions not only to improve their own diversity, but also to ensure that the growing number of women UHNW clients are catered to with an advisory style that works for them.


In this article, I’ll explore in more detail what the current state of play is in the Middle East, why wealth management firms should be looking to hire more women and how they can encourage women into private banker roles.

The state of financial play for women in the Middle East

Historically, women have faced cultural barriers in the Middle East that have limited their role in financial affairs. Today, economic growth, political stability and shifting cultural mindsets have advanced the cause of women in the region, enabling access, for example, to higher levels of education. 


It’s interesting to note the current percentage of women university students outnumbers their male counterparts in 15 of 22 Arab countries, according to a study by BCG. As a result, women in the Middle East are increasingly investors, business owners, partners, CEOs and professionals. 


However, this same study also suggests that still only 22% of senior executive roles within wealth management are held by women, and fewer in the Middle East. Among these are the CEOs of Arab Bank, First Abu Dhabi Bank and Samba Financial Group in the region, where women are holding these positions for the first time. The gender balance is shifting. There might be a way to go, but the beginnings of the path to opportunity and equality are being laid out for women to tread.

Why should financial institutions in EMEA hire more women?

There’s a statistic that’s frequently cited that 70% of women would prefer a woman financial advisor. Wealth amongst women clients in the Middle East is growing at a compound rate of 9% per annum. Therefore it seems obvious that firms should look to hire more women bankers, and there are several other reasons why organisations will benefit from doing this: 

1.  Studies have shown that in the Middle East today, about 70% of women switch their wealth manager within one year of their husband’s death. This suggests that women are taking stronger control of their finances and playing an active role in choosing their private banker. In some Middle Eastern regions there are cultural and social norms that make it more difficult for women to interact in meetings alone with men. For many of these UHNW women clients, it will be their first exposure to the world of finance. Having more women within your workforce will ensure this growing client base in the Middle East is comfortable and catered for.

2.  Women tend to have a different approach to investing than men, and may find it easier to communicate with another woman. Studies have shown women to be more likely to take ESG factors into account in their investment decision making, take longer term investment positions and be more data (versus ‘gut’) driven than their male counterparts. Both men and women UHNW clients in the Middle East and globally stand to benefit from this diversity in investment approach.

3.  Having more women in C-suite positions can also help inspire and encourage other women to pursue careers in finance, creating a virtuous cycle of increased gender diversity and representation in the industry and beyond. Currently women only make up 19% of the labour force in the Middle East (the lowest percentage in the world), as compared to the global average of 47%. If a firm takes an active approach to hiring more women, this can quickly change.

4.  By drawing on the talents and skills of all members of society, including women, financial institutions have access to a larger and more diverse pool of potential employees, which can help drive growth and development.

5.  Having a more diverse workforce, including more women in managerial positions, can bring a wider range of perspectives and ideas to the table, leading to better decision-making and more innovative solutions. Indeed, according to the IMF, “Banks with higher shares of women board members had higher capital buffers, a lower proportion of nonperforming loans, and greater resistance to stress.”


The benefits are clear and the situation is slowly changing, as banks start to turn their heads and realise they need to hire more women in management positions. For example, Emirates NBD is the first UAE banking group to publicly commit to female leadership targets, declaring that they will aim for 25% of all senior roles to be filled by women by 2027. It’s a step in the right direction.


So, how can Middle Eastern women get on a financial career path, and what can make it an attractive proposition for them?

What banks can do to encourage women in private banking

Private banker roles can involve a lot of travel, relationship-building and socialising outside of usual office hours. As such, historically this hasn’t been seen as a ‘proper’ career option for women, particularly given cultural norms in the Middle East. Alongside this, attaining seniority for women private bankers has coincided with the time in life in which they may look towards family planning. As a result, many have chosen an alternative career path with less time required away from families.


Today, with greater emphasis on hybrid working, meetings conducted online in a post-COVID world and more women UHNW clients, the stage is set for this to change. 


Banks have started to alter the way in which they work, allowing women to consider wealth management as a legitimate career path. For instance, according to a recent McKinsey survey, private banks plan to triple their investment in technology in response to remote working and the associated clients’ needs. Women stand to benefit from this as it will allow them to prioritise both their career and family.


However, if banks in the Middle East truly want more women in their workforce, especially at a senior level, they will have to start by providing more in terms of flexibility, such as offering structured return to work programmes for those who have taken a career break, or childcare support for those who have started families. 


In addition, banks should look to provide training across the wider organisation to root out the unconscious bias or outdated gender ideas that still exist in some regions. This will not only make a positive change to the culture of the firm, but will encourage both men and women private bankers to think differently about the nature of a women’s investment requirements, enhancing their ability to attract a rapidly growing women UHNW client base.


Alongside this, it’s important for banks to demonstrate that women are not being hired only to serve women clients, but that they have a promising long-term future in the industry. Firms can highlight this by ensuring that women are compensated fairly and in line with their male counterparts from the outset, and are provided with equal opportunities for promotion. Offering mentorship, leadership training and support groups focused around women in the workforce will provide a platform to share ideas and challenges, thereby encouraging more women participation in private banking. 


Finally, having more women, especially in executive, decision-making roles will mean they act as role models to the next wave of women private bankers looking to join the industry, resulting in a multiplier effect and ultimately a better gender balance within firms over time. 

A final thought

All firms and clients are set to benefit from an influx of women into management roles within the private banking industry. Today, organisations that score highly on gender diversity within their executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability. Banks within the Middle East that take proactive steps in this regard will not only benefit from the increased diversity, but also stand to capture a large share of the growing wealth market of UHNW women clients in the region.


I’ve been working within executive search, placing senior leadership talent in the Middle East for over 14 years. If you’d like to have a chat about hiring more women into your firm, contact me directly and let’s set up time for a call.

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