“Women generally outnumber men in universities in the region and lack neither ambition nor drive to reach very senior roles,” says Rana Ghandour Salhab, head of Deloitte MENA.
After decades of carving out her own niche in the male-dominated world of finance, Salhab is now in a highly influential position as a role model for women in the sector. Recently, Salhab was recognized as a global champion for women in business in the first-ever FT HEROes ranking.
Salhab’s career path has had its ups and downs. She recalls her first job in the early 1980s, in the education sector in the GCC. “At that time in the Gulf, education was among the only career options available to women so I took it, though I did not see myself growing in that field,” she told Executive Magazine in 2015.
Salhab believes risk-taking, having a thick skin, and taking on leadership roles with confidence are characteristics that have helped her grow in financial services.
After 12 years in the education sector, Salhab took a risk and changed careers when her husband’s job took the family to Cairo. Even with 12 years of work experience, breaking into a new field meant she’d have to take a huge step back in her career; which was not an option for Salhab.
She was offered an entry-level role in Andersen, which she turned down. Instead, she offered to work for the company for free so they can gauge her caliber for themselves in a three-month period. After that time, she gave them the option to hire her in a management role, or let her go–no hard feelings.
Almost like a corporate Cinderella story, Andersen hired her as a manager and offered her triple what they had earlier.
After a few good years at Andersen, Salhab moved to Deloitte and became the first woman to make partner in the company’s Middle East branch. “Percentage-wise [women in executive positions worldwide] that is nothing, but the fact that we got to shoot the glass ceiling is an achievement by itself,” Salhab says.
Since then, her career has seen her coaching and mentoring women in her organization to collectively break through the glass ceiling. For Salhab, the biggest mystery is why skilled female graduates don’t make it into the labor force.
More women than men gain a university education in many Middle Eastern countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but when it comes to accessing capital and jobs the positions are reversed.
Salhab believes that economics, rather than morality, will ultimately win the gender parity argument but it will take a long time. “While some progress on women’s rights has been made across the Middle East region, and significant social and economic changes have played a role in supporting Arab women’s workforce participation, much still remains to be done.”
She was named number one global champion of women in business, ahead of Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive of Salesforce, who came in second, and Teresa Ko, partner and chairman of international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in China.