Historically, the finance industry has always been
male-dominated and Islamic finance was no
exception where women faced various obstacles
including religious conservatism, restrictions
on mixed-gender working environments and
stereotypes about women in Islamic finance.
However, the past decade has seen a growing band
of women professionals breaking down barriers
and performing increasingly important roles in the
Islamic finance industry.
These exceptionally talented and inspiring female
leaders have not only set the pace to occupy
leadership positions in Islamic banking and finance,
but have been playing a prominent role in the overall
development of the industry as well. As inspirational
role models, they have become drivers of change
that have inspired a whole new generation of female
Women involvement in the Islamic financial services
industry has come a long way, with Malaysia
undeniably setting the tone. Five out of the Top 10
Most Influential Women in Islamic Finance 2019 as
listed on Womani 2019 (a list compiled by Cambridge
IFA, a UK-based think tank), are leading Malaysian
women in their respective areas. Malaysian women
have not only set the pace to occupy high positions
in the Islamic finance industry, but have played
and continue to play prominent roles in the overall
development of the industry at both local and global
The topic of women empowerment has become
a significant topic of discussion in development
economics and is widely recognised as a key to
economic growth, political stability, and social
transformation. Many agencies of the United
Nations in their reports have emphasised that the
gender issue must be given utmost priority. World
leaders, experts and scholars alike are giving their
voice to this critical endeavor.
• Barack Obama, 44th US President: When women succeed, nations are more safe, secure and prosperous.
• Kofi Annan, 7th UN Secretary General: There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.
When we use the term women empowerment
its meaning extends beyond this to include self
actualising inner power, awareness of one’s rights
and privileges and the ability to control one’s life in
a more meaningful and fulfilling way.
However, women experience multiple and
intersecting inequalities. Structural barriers in the
economic, social, political and environmental spheres produce and reinforce these inequalities. Obstacles
to women’s economic and political empowerment
are barriers to sustainable development and the
achievement of gender equality.
While the government, corporates, and the society
at large are looking at various initiatives and means
to empower women in the workplace, marketplace
and community; the real game changers are the
women themselves. In this context, I would like to
offer the “3Es” of Women Empowerment.
The first “E” is Encourage Empowerment. Even
though women are making progress towards gender
parity in many governments and corporates around
the world, the numbers are still sobering. While more
women have entered political positions in recent
years, including through the use of special quotas,
they still hold a mere 23.7% of parliamentary seats.
The situation is not much better in the private
sector, where women globally occupy less than a
third of senior and middle management positions.
Deloitte’s 2017 edition of “Women in the Boardroom: A
Global Perspective” underlines that women’s placement
at all board seats globally is only at 15%, up by a mere
3% from 2015.
Given that empowerment processes are dynamic,
positive change in one aspect reinforces other aspects
of empowerment. Mentoring, in fact, has proven to be
one of the most effective tools for advancing women in
the workplace and encouraging empowerment amongst
women. Companies with mentoring programmes are
often viewed as more attractive places to work and retain
female employees at a higher rate. Creating more women
role models in the corporate world is not just good for
women, it’s good for business. Companies need women
and people with diverse backgrounds at the table so that
they can make better and smarter decisions that respond
to the diverse needs of their customers.
Hence, programmes like WOMANi, which is pioneered
by Cambridge IFA, serves a good platform for both men
and women to support other women professionals as
they seek to advance in their careers within challenging
contexts, ensuring that they have knowledge and
problem-solving skills to negotiate paths to success. In
addition to supporting women as individuals, mentoring
programmes may contribute to change in organisational
cultures by preparing women to enter leadership roles
with the tools to tackle the impact of implicit bias and
to promote policies and processes that nurture inclusive,
The second “E” is Education for Empowerment.
Education is an essential means of empowering
women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence
necessary to fully participate in the development
process. In education, we have seen steady and
impressive decline in gender gaps around the world.
Businesses are realising that a more diverse workforce
adds a lot of shareholder value.
However, experience has shown that the relationship
between education and empowerment is not as simple
as it may first appear. While education is undoubtedly
a key element contributing to empowerment, the two
do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many educational
programmes will focus on acquisition of formal
knowledge and training, and will often equip women
with the technical skills necessary to take up paid
employment in a specific sector.
While it is important for women to receive formal
training as part of their education, a more holistic
approach that places a strong emphasis on enabling
them to develop a wider awareness of themselves,
ability to reflect on their own reality, to develop
self-awareness and to build self-esteem is also vital.
In my view, education must be reinforced by the
development of self-esteem to lift women from the
status of inferiority in which society confines them.
Similarly, without education and without self-esteem
there cannot be empowerment. All of these elements go together hand in hand.
The third “E” is Economic Empowerment. Women’s
economic empowerment is at the heart of the
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which
recognises that women’s full and equal participation
in the economy as a vital step toward achieving
sustainable development. This is embodied with the
inclusion of a Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5)
on Gender Equality.
n the past, gender equality sometimes was regarded as
a strictly social matter that exclusively benefits women
and girls. Yet we know that nothing could be further
from the truth! We know if women participated in t he
economy equally, the world economy would expand
by 25% over the next decade.
This is one of the reasons why countries like Malaysia
has placed economic empowerment and increasing
economic independence of women high on the
agenda. To increase women’s economic independence
the Malaysian government seeks to create more
opportunities for women to enter the labour market. A
sum of RM20 million has been allocated under Budget
2018 for training and entrepreneurship programmes,
including PEAK Entrepreneur Programme under
EMPOWER WOMEN, EMPOWER ISLAMIC FINANCE
There is no denying that the Islamic banking and finance
industry has provided ample opportunities for women
to excel in their professional life and achieve their full
potential. This is evident by the increased participation
of professional women in the development of
Islamic finance shattering the industry’s glass ceiling.
Undoubtedly, these inspirational female leaders and
industry pioneers have inspired and motivated a new
generation of female talent.
However, a more comprehensive view should be
taken when one looks at women’s participation in
Islamic banking and finance. A holistic strategy should
be devised beyond merely attracting women to this
industry. Issues for example barriers to re-entry such
as career obsolescence and employer bias must be
a given a heightened importance at the policy level.
The recently concluded 2nd WOMANi Awards (held
in Dubai) organised by Cambridge IFA has become
an annual gathering of influential women that sparks
conversations about issues and opportunities that
impact women inside and outside of work, challenge
the status quo, and ultimately, shapes the leadership