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Women In Islamic Finance: a conversation with The Women in Islamic and Ethical Finance Forum's Samina Akram

30 March 2015
Giada Vercelli

Samina Akram ranks amongst the most influential women in Islamic Finance according to ISFIRE, the Islamic Finance Review magazine. It was through her work at Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, in the Middle East Islamic Finance Business Development department that Samina saw the need for a platform where women professionals in Islamic finance could connect. She set up a London-based Islamic and ethical finance consultancy providing feasibility studies.

The Women in Islamic and Ethical Finance Forum charts the links between the Islamic and ethical finance industry and the role women play within it. ‘I received emails from women from UAE to Malaysia, from the US to Uzbekistan: banks, legal firms, financial institutions raised their interest’, Samina explains in a conversation with Euromoney’s Giada Vercelli, where she discusses the human capital challenge in Islamic finance and highlights some of the barriers women face and what needs to be done to overcome these hurdles.

Euromoney Conferences: How strong is the presence of women in Islamic finance?

Samina Akram: In some parts of the world, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the gender balance is almost on equal footing. Several women are CEOs of financial institutions in Malaysia. Indonesia has many women sitting on its National Shariah Council. In other parts of the world unfortunately this is not the case. In the UK, in all the Islamic Banks in operation, we have yet to see a female CEO.

EC: In which sector of the Islamic financial industry would you find more women and why?

SA: We see more women playing important roles in the development of the industry. In the legal space, for example, the gender balance is strong at the entry trainee level. Although at the senior partnership level, this is not necessarily the case. Banking has a lot of catching up to do. When it comes to job functions, the Islamic finance industry, like the conventional finance industry, has no problem attracting women at the admin, secretarial level. Investor relations, public relations, recruitment and human capital have a strong visibility. When it comes to senior management roles, we see a very low representation.

EC: Why are there not as many women involved in the growth of the Sukuk market?

SA: S&P's Islamic Finance Outlook notes the growth in Sukuk issuance is likely to continue in 2014, exceeding $100 billion. Double digit growth is anticipated by the Gulf corporate and infrastructure entities, due in part to large infrastructure financing needs. It is also predicted that sovereign Sukuk could be slowly emerging as an alternative to fund growth in African countries. Yet, the Sukuk market is extremely behind in attracting female talent. Sukuk normally falls under the debt capital markets division of the financial markets world. Capital markets in general suffers from recruiting and retaining women. I was recently looking at the figures from Women in Capital Markets. Their research conducted in 2013 suggests that 25% of analysts or associates in capital markets are women. 17% are at the level of vice president and director, and just 10% at managing director level. 

EC: What can the Islamic finance industry do to encourage involvement by more women?

SA: We need to start early in our process of attracting and developing female talent. There is a strong interest amongst female graduates to enter the sector but they are unsure on how to enter it. I was recently invited to speak at Kings College London (KCL), on an introductory level talk on ethical finance. The most interest I received in regards to career opportunities and joining the sector was from the female students. I found there was a lack of understanding in regards to the scale and size of the sector.  There was also a perception the industry is non-inclusive of women. There also needs to be flexible working hours available for women. Mentoring programmes are a must as are strong diversity initiatives in companies focused on retaining and developing female talent.

EC: Do your clients find it challenging to gain and retain talent? Why?

SA: Yes, the sector suffers hugely from lack of expertise. Clients often complain there are hardly any recruitment consultancies specialised in finding the right talent. Industry reports claim that the Islamic finance industry requires professionals across the world. Malaysia alone will require an additional 50,000. If we can seek inspiration from countries like Malaysia, the future is certainly looking bright. I strongly feel supporting women in the sector will help solve the talent issue. I believe the talent is there but not enough is being done to support and develop this talent. As a sector being so much at its infancy, we can't afford to lose good experienced talent.

EC: Women as buyers and investors. Are financial institutions missing an opportunity by gender selective inclusion practice?

SA: Financial institutions don’t understand the level of power and financial control women have in some parts of the world. They are reluctant to invest the resources and develop the platforms to service their needs. The banking sector often think they need to target certain markets like the Middle East with the attitude that they need to ‘educate’ women when the reality is far from this. Women are running very successful businesses and are active participants to economic development. From my time at Merrill Lynch running their Islamic finance wealth management business, I came to realise it was the women who were more interested in Islamic finance.

EC: Why are women interested in Islamic finance?

SA: Women seem to think carefully and take less risks when it comes to investments, they also seem to care more about ethical ways of investing. And yet banks are not doing enough to offer them shariah compliant options. From my personal experience women also tend to prefer female financial advisers especially in the Middle East. And yet the market suffers deeply within the private banking space from female Islamic finance wealth advisers.

EC: How does the mechanism of halal certification for financial products work? Does it include women?

SA: Institutions offering Islamic financial services must ensure they adhere to shariah principles. Institutions in most cases would employ a Shariah Advisory Board, made up of highly respected, independent shariah scholars. The scholars review the proposed transactions and supporting documents and issue appropriate fatwas (ruling/authoritative religious opinion based on the Shariah). Historically women in the Muslim world have played an important and active role as scholars side by side and in partnership with men. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the beloved wife of Prophet Mohammad, was the highest authority in many subjects including Islamic jurisprudence.  Over the centuries we have lost female scholars. The mainstream Islamic world suffers from senior female scholars. There are glimpses of hope in certain parts of the world. Indonesia and Malaysia see more female scholars arising. In Malaysia 3 of the 11 member Central Bank Shariah Advisory Board are women.

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