x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Three women who have it all share how they make it work

Reaching the top is no longer an impossible feat for female executives. But with less than 20 per cent represented at board level, it appears it's women holding themselves back – not companies.

Hala Badri is a mother of three children under the age of 10. She works long hours as executive vice president of brand and communications at du, but credits her success to her supportive mentors. Pawan Singh / The National
Hala Badri is a mother of three children under the age of 10. She works long hours as executive vice president of brand and communications at du, but credits her success to her supportive mentors. Pawan Singh / The National

After sending her three young children off to school, Hala Badri heads straight to the office to begin her working day at 7.30am.

As the executive vice president of brand and communications at du, the Emirati then works nine hours before heading home to help her children with their homework and get them ready for bed.

It's a busy day for the executive, but one that Mrs Badri believes is easily achievable.

"On a personal level, I have always been someone with a goal, so I've always had focus and an objective to go towards," she says. "If you look at it from an environmental perspective, the factors that have enabled me to succeed include education and social enablement - as my family has been a progressive one that has contributed to me pursuing my education at all levels.

"The UAE is one of the most accommodating nations to working women in the Gulf region. We don't face any different issues in the workplace than women elsewhere in the world. Maybe we did once, but, today, the issues are universal and probably here we have broken that glass ceiling perception."

At 36, Mrs Badri's success is admirable. She was recruited by du seven years ago after a long career spell as a corporate communications manager in the oil and gas industry.

But understanding the factors that help women such as Mrs Badri reach the top and then break that proverbial glass ceiling is something that has caused debate across the globe for decades.

While some women manage to juggle their domestic and professional duties with ease, others falter at the first sign of trouble. This is why the UK-based Ashridge Business School, an institution that runs leadership courses around the world, including in the UAE, recently carried out a study into understanding women's careers.

"We were motivated by two things," says Fiona Dent, the independent business school's director of executive education, who carried out the research and intends to publish it this year. "Women are becoming a higher percentage of the workforce throughout the world, but the number reaching the top is still very small - significantly less than 20 per cent are getting into board positions globally."

Of the 1,400 female respondents to the survey, 47.7 per cent believe it is harder for a woman to succeed in an organisation compared with male colleagues, while 48.8 per cent think men and women are treated differently in terms of leadership and behaviour.

"The major thing that surprised me, as someone who's been working for 35 years, was that not much has changed," says Ms Dent, a British mother of two grown children, who are now aged 29 and 27.

"There are better policies and practices in place for women now, but some of the things I would say in the 1980s, when my kids were toddlers, about the way I was treated, the organisational attitude and the attitude of my colleagues, are still the same today."

The research revealed that many women rule themselves out of career progression for reasons such as being fed up with "playing the game", the continued existence of the old boys' network, having personal commitments outside of the workplace, such as a family, and lacking belief in their own ability.

On the other hand, factors that helped women "make it" include drive, self-confidence, self-belief and having a clear career plan.

This is something that has certainly worked for Melissa Pasha, 32, the acting business development manager in the Middle East for Latham & Watkins, a global law firm with offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh.

"It's about dedication, having good mentors and a good network of ladies - not just within the firm but through networking," says Miss Pasha, who is from the US and was transferred to the firm's Dubai office in Dubai International Financial Centre in January 2010.

"We have business development personnel across the globe, so how did I stand out in Los Angeles to be able to come to the Middle East and have this opportunity? It's about what you know and the initiatives and ideas you have.

"I help each of the 31 offices we have around the world and I guarantee that each one of those offices knows who I am. And it's a good feeling to be strategic, to be innovative and add value, which shows dedication."

Miss Pasha says she has never felt discounted or ignored because of her gender and has noticed little difference in the way she is treated since moving to the UAE especially as she has helped to set up the company's Women Enriching Business (WEB) initiative here.

Mrs Badri agrees, saying it is not companies that stop women reaching the top, but the attitudes and beliefs of the women themselves.

"A lot of women create their own hurdles," she says. "We restrict ourselves because we have certain beliefs - because we are women, we should stay at home and raise the children. This has all changed, but we keep on having this perception and these are our own beliefs - it's not something in the community or environment."

There's no doubt having children is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing women's career advancement, with many women choosing to give up work or go part-time after they have a family.

"There's no changing that because we are the only ones who can have babies," says Ms Dent. "It's a big reason why the number of women working at board level is so low. It's easier for a man to go to a breakfast meeting than a woman who's getting her kids up and off to school."

In the study by Ashridge, 80.6 per cent of women agree that having a good work-life balance is important, although only half of those polled say they are actually achieving that balance.

"How they achieve that balance varies from woman to woman," says Ms Dent. "Some women decide that the family comes first, others continue to focus on their career with the support of nannies, family or husbands who can be the at-home partner. And some women compromise by not having children at all."

For Mrs Badri, dividing her time between her professional life and her children - Mahra, seven, Abdulla, six and Meera, four - is something she has learnt to manage.

"I have a belief. If I wanted to balance life and work perfectly, I would have to be Superwoman and there is no such thing. So I have made it a principle in life - it's OK to sometimes screw up at work so that you can be with your family and vice versa," says Mrs Badri, who has a nanny to help her and relies on a network of friends and family, including her sister who lives next door.

During the week, her children arrive home from school by 3pm - a similar time to her husband, who is the head of stakeholder relationship at Dubai Airports Company. Mrs Badri then arrives home about 5pm.

"It's very difficult to keep on top of all of it and whoever tells you they have a harmonious balance between work and life is definitely lying to you. I make up for the lost time on the weekends by doing horse riding and painting with my children and going to football with my son."

While Mrs Badri's story is an example of how women can have it all, so to speak, for many more, being a good parent and achieving professional goals can feel almost impossible.

"We've worked hard to get equality in the workplace, but we haven't really got rid of the traditional gender role that women are the mothers and housewives and do the domestic duties," says Dr Annie Crookes, the business and psychology course director at Dubai's Heriot-Watt University.

"And while women with children then become very good with multitasking and time management, the problem is that most high, top-level executive jobs, in terms of advancement, are long hours and it's precisely that problem that might stop them going further up the ladder. They are stuck."

Other issues for executive women highlighted in the study include being perceived as being "soft and fluffy" by their colleagues and struggling to earn the same level of respect as a male leader.

"Evidence suggests that women have to work harder to get respect," says Ms Dent. "But one thing you definitely don't do is become like a man. The overriding evidence is that women must maintain their own authenticity - they must maintain their own approach to doing business. There are things you can do such as putting yourself forward, taking on tough, challenging projects and not being frightened to say I can do that. The same with pay; a man will ask, but women often end up earning less because they don't ask for that pay rise."

Dr Crookes says the notion that women need to be a little bit aggressive, pushy and assertive is cultural because these are typically male personality traits.

"There's a lot of interest in this issue, particularly in the science, engineering and technology industries, where there are women advancement issues. There is this idea that to be good at science and engineering, you have to be isolated and assertive and that would put women off.

"What's interesting is that as much as we might have training and programmes to overcome these gender stereotypes, they are so ingrained in us that studies show where you might have a culture where girls are encouraged to go into teaching, they actually do worse in science exams. It's so ingrained that girls actually believe they are not as good at science."

For those women who are determined to overcome stereotypes to reach the top, however, the Ashridge study says the journey can be much smoother with the right support.

"In different sectors of your life, you need different mentors," says Mrs Badri. "At college, I had my journalism professor who was my mentor. On the family front, it has always been my father - somebody I look up to. He is a businessman and somebody who has encouraged my growth and my career. At work, I look at our chairman as a mentor - somebody who gives me strategic advice who sets the benchmark and tells me, 'go achieve it'.

"I also have a life coach. Yes, I am doing well in my career, but in life, am I pursuing the things that I want to do? Every six months, I do my checks and balances with the coach to check if I have achieved everything on a personal level, on an operational level, at a strategic level or at a family level."

Miss Pasha credits one of her first female managers for supporting and nurturing her career in its early stages. But she also puts her success down to the female role models she has to look up to.

"Most of the business development arm at Latham are female and we have a woman chief marketing officer," says Miss Pasha.

"I think in this day and age, it's the generation above me that set the stage. They are the ones who had a harder time, so it's made it easier for women my age to progress."

For this reason, Miss Pasha, who works up to 12 hours a day, had no qualms discussing her career progress when she felt she was ready for the next step up.

"I voiced what I wanted and due to my contribution and dedication, they gave me this opportunity. They acknowledged they would lose me unless they could challenge me properly," she says.

"And, yes, I asked for a pay rise - especially with the long hours I was working. It didn't happen the first year, but it did the second."

But getting to the top does mean making a compromise.

"It's hard, I have to almost make an extra effort to be able to have time for myself," says Miss Pasha, who is single.

"Everyone compromises at some point with something. This is what I am doing to establish myself so that I am ready for that next opportunity once I complete this interim assignment.

"There are times when I do feel I am missing something, but right now I know that spending this effort and energy at work has paid off - it has been noticed and recognised."



Top Tips

Advice for employees

Be explicit Identify your career goals, ambitions and aspirations. Remember, you can adapt, develop and change these over time

Develop self-awareness Identify your major strengths, style, interests, values, beliefs and any areas you need to develop. Be open-minded to and welcome feedback from others to help you raise your self-awareness, confidence and self-belief

Be open-minded Welcome opportunities when they arise and ensure you put yourself forward for key projects and assignments

Be aware Relationships and networks are important. Make your networks work for you by being actively involved in both internal and external groups

Find a good boss Recognise the important role your boss can play in your career success. Finding a good one is invaluable for developmental purposes

Identify who can help Coaches, mentors and sponsors. Take every developmental opportunity offered to you and offer to develop others

Develop a plan Create your personal brand and a personal pitch to share with others when appropriate

Juggling the work-life balance This is tough and needs careful planning. Recognise that there will be times when it feels imbalanced and others when you feel more in control. Find the strategies that work for you

Remember You can have it all, just not all the time