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Women are seizing business potential in the Gulf
Source: BI-ME , Author: Justin Smith
Posted: Thu November 27, 2008 12:00 am

UAE. If the line-up of five educated, successful, articulate, attractive and on-the-ball Arabian Gulf ladies on the DIFC Forum panel is anything to go by, things are indeed changing for women in this part of the world.

Speakers including Ranya Doleh, Managing Partner Siren Consulting, UAE; Elham Hassan, Country Senior Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Bahrain; Najla Al Awadhi, Member of the UAE Federal National Council, Deputy CEO of Dubai Media Inc, and Director General of Dubai One TV, UAE; Noor Sweid, Managing Director of Strategy, DEPA United Group, UAE; and Tasneem Mayet, Senior Vice President and Head of Investments, Forsa, UAE, said that the working and investment for women is indeed changing in the region.

With the Gulf facing a talent and human resource crunch, it seems that the present generation of educated young women is getting ready to step up and claim its rightful place in the professional world. But despite the progress evidenced by the rise in the number of women in leadership positions in both the private sector and government, obstacles remain, many of which start at home.

Moderator Tim Sebastian kicked off the proceedings on the second day of the DIFC Forum in Dubai by asking the audience to take part in an interactive vote on whether the future lay in the hands of the men or in those of women themselves. An overwhelming 77% replied that it was women who could change their own destinies, and for that, they need to help each other.

“We operate in a working and social environment in which a lot of judgement comes from women, and not men,” said Ranya Doleh, a sentiment echoed by her fellow panellists. “It’s not just a Gulf Arab phenomenon,” she added, having lived and worked in the UK, “I have to promote myself to my female peers more than to men.”

And very often, despite the fact that many girls in the Gulf region today have gone into higher education and many study at universities abroad, resistance to their going on to pursue full- time careers often comes from their own parents. As a federal MP and leading figure in the Dubai media world, Najla Al Awadhi, pointed out that the Emirates have the highest number of university graduates in the Arab world, but when it comes to women in government, the boardroom or senior management, “you can count them on the fingers of your hand,” she said. “Support from the family or the husband does not exist. On the micro-level at home, it is a challenge.”

While forward-looking young women are eager to embark on a career path, the generation gap if often the first obstacle. Ranya Doleh explained. “The West fought most of our battles for us,” she said about the advancement of Arab women today, “this is the first generation that has achieved all this progress.”

The parents of these young women are only one generation away and many mothers never completed high school. The gap is sometimes huge and persuading parents to change their minds about girls’ careers is a struggle. “We are Arabs and our societies are steeped in social values,” Doleh added. And the battle is hard, even if they have the support of their husbands. “You can’t ask a man to go against his mother,” Doleh said.

There was general agreement that for women to move forward and embrace rewarding careers, they needed the support of men. “Women have a greater challenge. We want to work and contribute to society, but women can’t become successful without support from men. It’s about working together,” said Al Awadhi. And that means not only husbands, but fathers and brothers as well. “We need awareness sessions for the men,” she added.

There was talk about double standards when it comes to raising girls and boys and the position in society they are led to aspire to. Elham Hassan of Bahrain said today’s mothers must raise their children with a different perspective: “I don’t think we need to wait for our parents to change. Start your own family and pass your own message on to the new generation. We talk the talk, but we need to walk the walk,” she said. “The way we raise our boys is different to the way we raise our girls, it is a vicious circle. It is the upbringing that matters, if the roots are good, the rest follows.”

Moderator Sebastian drew the audience in, launching a lively debate by interviewing a male member of the audience. “There is a biological barrier,” the interviewee said of women’s career prospects, “if I was a woman, I would rather raise a beautiful family,” he added. This drew strong reactions from the panel. This brought the discussion into the vexed question of achieving the family/work balance, with participants saying one does not exclude the other.

“We can do it all,” Doleh said. “It is a question of assessing what your needs are, what your business needs are and what your children’s needs are.” It also raised the issue of what assumptions people make about them as working women.

Depa's Noor Sweid said: “Now I am about to start a family everyone is assuming that because I am an Arab woman, I am not going to go back to work, but of course I am.” She added that she was often put on the defensive, an unpleasant experience. This was echoed by her co-panellists who felt they often had to defend their choices and fight when men did not have to.

Sweid recalled an occasion when she was being recruited for an important post: “I was half way through and they had the audacity to ask why they should offer me the position since I was going to leave in two years’ time to have children. I was shocked,” she said.

Women in the region often find they are made to feel bad about choosing to get out into the working world.

Doleh said: “We are smothered in social judgement. We are expected to make a choice. It’s not about gender, it is just that we have to take time out to have our children and we have to apologise for that.”

Several panellists and audience members said they were made to feel guilty about being ambitious in a career sense, but Tasneem Mayet argued the time for that has passed. “I don’t feel guilty anymore,” she asserted, “I know I contribute a lot to society, to my family and to my business.”

The debate also explored how things can move forward for women in the workplace. Hassan made the case for positive discrimination without however advocating quotas. “Men have superseded for centuries,” she noted, “we need a level playing field. We also need more education and training,” she added. Her co-panellists argued that it was merit that would tip the balance.

“It’s not about gender,” retorted Mayet who heads a female-only team of highly skilled female investment specialists for female investors, “it boils down to competency.”

There was overall agreement that government legislation was needed to enhance the position of women. Al Awadhi paid tribute to her government’s positive role in this respect in the UAE: “Women’s advancement never would have happened without the government and our ministers,” she said. “We need legislation that forces society to change.”

Bahrain’s Hassan also supported the idea, including, she suggested, reviewing the interpretation of some religious precepts. “Women’s place will not change without economic and social reforms and perhaps a better interpretation of religious principles to allow women to be in the workplace in a normal way,” she argued. She felt government policies could encourage the retention and empowerment of women. That included, others suggested, things like flexible hours, nurseries in offices and working from home via computer.

Similarly, political changes are needed, in particular when it comes to having more female representatives in government bodies.  Several panellists lamented that although opportunities to elect women were given in countries like Kuwait and the UAE, few, if any had been elected. Rare were the women who voted for women said Awadhi. “In Kuwait, there was a high participation of women in the elections but no woman made it to parliament. They voted for men because there is still pressure in our patriarchal societies that say men can lead better. But we in the UAE are shattering that myth.”

But the women on this panel were clear that it is time for perceptions and society to change, without confrontation.

Awadhi said: “We don’t want to take over the world! We are not fierce women. We want to contribute as human beings, as active members of society.” 

Mayet added that there could be a positive side to the current financial and economic crisis. “It could open doors because wives and daughters may have to go out to work,” she said. 

Women can juggle family and career and they are good at multi-tasking, the panel felt. Echoing points made by another panel members, Hassan added: “There will come a time when men will want to become more equal to us.”

But for that to happen, Arab Muslim women do not need to mimic the West. They need only look into the depths of their own culture. Awadhi said: “Women should dream. Why can’t we have both? 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam came together with Khadija, a woman who worked. He was her partner in life.”

 

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