Today.Az » Weird / Interesting » Success in the shadow of men
15 May 2015 [10:17] - Today.Az
Across the Middle East, women are breaking new ground in the business world: establishing companies, expanding into new markets and taking on high-level corporate positions.
Yet one important difference remains between them and their male counterparts and it’s holding their sisters back — a reluctance to be public about their accomplishments.
Many of the most successful Arab women remain low-profile, focusing on work rather than publicising their successes through interviews, blogs, columns and conferences. Some say it’s time for that to change, so that other women have visible and strong reminders of what women can accomplish, even in patriarchal societies.
As it is, there are few female role models in the region. Laws and social norms still generally favour men. And some businesses openly recruit only men for high-level positions and although it is changing in some parts of the region, families often lend their support only to their sons in education and work initiatives.
“I see a lot of women who are invisible, but their strength is incredible. I think, what if these women put their energy and intelligence into something more visible and scalable for the rest of the world,” said Reem Asaad, a former banker turned entrepreneur in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who writes about financial planning for women as a columnist atDestination Jeddah. “I see myself as a role model for everyone.”
Asaad has dedicated herself to empowering Middle Eastern women by teaching them the importance of financial independence. Through her writing and workshops, she also teaches “invisible” women how they contribute to society. For Asaad, it’s all about leading what she calls a “soft revolution”.
“I know a woman who… remains a homemaker by choice because she lacks the confidence to make a difference in her community,” said Asaad. “If I can raise awareness with these women and the upcoming generation, I could leave a footprint for (them).”
Seeing themselves in others
When women have role models, they may be more likely to enter the workforce, bringing talents and skills that benefit everyone, say experts.
Women in the Middle East and North Africa, on average, are more likely than men to attend university, but their labour participation rate is only 26%, far less than the 39% average for lower and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank. That is a sign that many well-qualified women aren’t entering the workforce.
“If women don’t see other women who’ve made it, they might think [having a career] isn’t for them,” said Beirut-based Dima Dabbous, senior consultant on media and gender at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. “It’s precisely because we don’t see them in business at the top of the echelon that there’s the idea that women can’t make it in a male-dominated field.”
Networking is one way Dabbous suggests successful Arab women should raise their profile. She also encourages women to pursue high-level positions even if they have families, so others can see they don’t need to choose between career and family, she said. “Plenty of women have achieved both,” said Dabbous.
Mentors and coaches
Mentors are also vital for Middle Eastern women’s career success. While this can be helpful anywhere in the world, it is especially important in places where there are few visible examples of women in prominent positions.
Majd Shweikeh, Jordan’s new minister of information and communications technology, believes strongly in the power of mentoring. The former chief executive officer of VTEL previously counselled student entrepreneurs with the non-governmental, volunteer-based education organisation, Injaz. She also established a regional corporate coaching firm called Musharek, in 2013. Many of Shweikeh’s clients have been women, who, while often well qualified, needed help navigating and standing out in the corporate world.
While there are certainly obstacles in society, Shweikeh has found that women sometimes hold themselves back.
“I’ve witnessed challenges that came my way, and I’m a strong believer that it’s all about our minds,” said Shweikeh. “The challenge is to prove yourself. Not all women accept this challenge. They need to have the right fighting spirit to prove themselves. It’s not always something that comes naturally.”
Hala Fadel, head of the Beirut-based MIT Enterprise Forum in the Pan-Arab Region, an alumni network that hosts technology conferences and competitions, agrees that women should make themselves more visible — even as she, herself, struggles with discomfort of being in the spotlight.
“I was on TV, but I didn’t tell anyone,” said Fadel. “I almost didn’t want anyone to see it. I know that if my husband were on TV, he would have told all his friends.”
With her daughters, however, she hasn’t hesitated to bring them into the office to show them what she does. She wants her daughters and others to know it’s possible to work and raise a family. And with her new venture, she is happy that two of the four partners are women and most of the Beirut office consists of female employees.
She hopes that high female employment, particularly women-run firms, will one day be the norm. “I want people to think it’s natural,” Fadel said.
Once some more prominent or successful women shed their fear of exposure, others might do the same. Asaad, the personal finance specialist, notes that she was one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to assume a non-traditional role at a large bank as an executive associate. Before, women were mostly relegated to clerical positions.
“I was the guinea pig for experimenting with women. I had to portray and carry myself and meet certain expectations,” Asaad said. “Today, if you go to that same institution, the chief financial officer of that same bank [National Commercial Bank] is a woman. The chief executive officer of the investment arm is also a woman. What people don’t know is, there were people like me who went through a lot. Nothing will happen unless we go to the front lines.”