ABU DHABI // When Reem Amer began working in the oil industry, she thought her biggest challenges would come from the desert: the sun, the heat, the insects in her lunch.
Instead, she found being the only woman in an all-male environment was tougher than the elements.
People stared. Older technicians found it awkward to follow her instructions. Men did not take her seriously.
"I don't think I have a problem showing we are up to it," Ms Amer said of women in male-dominated industries. "It's more them accepting it."
That Ms Amer, 23, a field engineer, even held such a job is a sign of enormous progress in workforce gender equality in the UAE and Middle East, said people participating in the Women in Leadership Forum yesterday.
"All these sisters who would like to step in and run to the front, the door is open," said Nasif Kayed, the male general manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, in Dubai.
But working women in the region continue to face hurdles; some subtle, others serious.
Ms Amer, an Egyptian born in the UAE, said she left fieldwork soon after starting. She is still an engineer.
The oilfield services company for which she works, Baker Hughes, supported her and has a special initiative to recruit, retain and develop female engineers. But there was little anyone could do to force the men in the field to accept her.
"It's just the limitations of the region that go beyond programmes," Ms Amer said.
During the two-day forum at the Emirates Palace hotel, participants described the difficulties Middle East women tackle as they advance in their careers.
Sometimes it was the classic dilemma of balancing work and family, they said.
"The traditional picture of women is being at home," said Manal Al Nasser, a Saudi Arabian mother of five who has worked in health care for years. "Acceptance is really taking time."
Societal pressure to marry can lead women to give work lower priority, panellists said.
"I am so disappointed when I go to a high school and I say, 'What are you looking for?' and they say, 'I am looking to get married'," Mr Kayed said. "Why do you have to have a male in your life to become somebody?"
Women who do enter the workforce find a shortage of networking opportunities, several people said.
One audience member asked the panellists for advice about a bonding activity her male colleagues had planned: an overnight boat trip. She cannot go because it would be improper but worries she will miss making connections.
"I am with you on that," said Ghaniyah Al Yafei, a strategic adviser at the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations. "There is an overnight trip coming next week and I can't go, it's that simple. It is because our culture does not allow it."
Confronted with a similar situation, Aida Al Busaidy asked her brother and her husband if one of them could come along, she said.
"Yes, there are cultural limitations, but 60 per cent of my job is how do you get creative," said Ms Al Busaidy, the manager of planning, internal and online communications for Masdar.
Finally, many women said they faced scepticism from male colleagues.
"They'll look at you and they think, 'Aw, she's so pretty and she's so young', and that's all they think," Ms Al Busaidy said.
Ms Amer described a drill in the field that required her to put on heavy equipment.
"I could tell that everyone was waiting for me to be a huge mess and not be able to put it on," she said. So she did it faster than everyone else.
To be taken seriously as a working woman, Ms Al Busaidy said, you must beat men at their own game.
"I've never regretted being born female," she said. "I have always felt more superior because I am a woman."