“I was an outsider with no direct industry experience and being a woman certainly did not help,” Akram said by e-mail this month. “My personal struggle in the industry made me realize the obstacles women face and what needs to be done to overcome them. This is where the Women in Islamic Finance idea came from.”

Unemployment among women is five times higher than for men in the GCC, and women hold less than 1 percent of top executive positions, among the lowest figures worldwide, according to a report by McKinsey Middle East last year. The study cites social expectations and a lack of leadership programs and networking opportunities as key reasons for the gap in the region, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. “The GCC is only now waking up to the fact women have a powerful economic voice,” Akram said.

Malaysia Progress

In more conservatives countries, such as Saudi Arabia, there are religious and social constraints that for example forbid the mixing of genders in the work environment. While women in the kingdom make up the majority of university students, they account for just 21 percent of the workforce, with most of them employed in education and health care, according to Emad Mostaque, a London-based strategist at emerging-markets consultancy company Ecstrat Ltd.

In other parts of the world with large Muslim populations, women have made more progress in Islamic banking. Two of Malaysia’s 16 Islamic lenders are run by women and three of the 11-member central bank Shariah Advisory Board are female.

In the GCC, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank PJSC, the U.A.E.’s second-biggest Shariah-compliant lender, has unveiled a yearlong initiative to mentor about 40 female bankers who have spent at least four years at the bank and prepare them for more challenging leadership roles.

“We wanted to make sure the ladies at the bank are given a career path with training so that if they have been forgotten or looked over, then they are now in the spotlight,” CEO Tirad Mahmoud told reporters in Abu Dhabi on July 5.

Shakeeb Saqlain, the CEO of IslamicBanker.com, a U.K.-based online training and networking platform specializing in Shariah banking, said the lack of women in leadership roles at banks has been a miscalculated strategy.

Financial institutions “must do more to offer Islamic financial solutions to this growing female segment, who desperately welcome the idea of investing in Shariah-compliant or ethical financial products,” Akram said.

Originally published on www.bloomberg.com