Ex-Merrill Lynch banker takes on male-dominated Islamic industry

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Samina Akram left her job at Merrill Lynch International Bank six years ago to start her own consultancy in London specializing in Shariah-compliant finance. Now she’s seeking to empower women in male-dominated Islamic banking. 

What started as an informal ladies lunch club with other women in the industry will this week become the first global Women in Islamic & Ethical Finance Forum, a conference for more than 200 people at KPMG LLP’s Canary Wharf offices in London. Shariah-compliant finance forbids interest and typically relies on deals in which the buyer and the seller share risk as well as profit. 

Akram, 36, who set up Samak Consultants LLP, is seeking to support women in an industry where they face more obstacles than in conventional banking because of religious conservatism, restrictions on mixed-gender working environments and stereotypes about women in Islamic finance. 

In the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council a shift may already be under way, as the region’s banks aim to draw more female clients and recognize they need more female bankers to do so, according to PwC. Women’s net worth in the GCC may grow as much as 15 percent to about $258 billion in the 10 years through 2023, according to Kuwait Financial Centre, an asset manager and investment bank. 

“There is opportunity, absolutely,” Ashruff Jamall, the Dubai-based global head of the Islamic finance division at PwC, said by phone on July 21. “It’s a question of priorities. Islamic banks are now beginning to focus on the women’s segment. Developing female leadership also serves as a catalyst in attracting women as customers.” 

Having started at Merrill Lynch in an administrative role, Akram rose to run the lender’s Islamic finance wealth management business. She left the bank in April 2009 as investment banks were shifting focus to outside Islamic finance consultants rather than in-house experts. 

“I was an outsider with no direct industry experience and being a woman certainly did not help,” Akram said by email 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. 

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 healthcare, 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 Britain-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. 

© 2015, Bloomberg News 

Samina Akram
Samina Akram