Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

A woman’s place: Inside the UAE's all-female workplaces

From empathetic colleagues to flexible hours and a lack of ego, we discover how all-female offices can create positive places for women to work

The multi-national team of 13 women at Roar interior design company, which is based in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National
The multi-national team of 13 women at Roar interior design company, which is based in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National

Two words were notable by their conspicuous repetition when discussing the working environments of four all-female companies in the UAE: support and flexibility.

When speaking with the founders and employees of these home-grown businesses it became apparent that the women working there appreciate, more than anything, the sense of empathy and the nurturing environment these workplaces provide.

That is not to mention the intrinsic understanding that a better work-life balance is beneficial not only to mothers, but all employees equally.

As corporate executives spend time introducing diversity strategies to hire more women and discussing how to minimise the gender pay gap, these UAE companies are busy putting the tired stereotypes of women in the workplace to bed. The only gossip going on in these offices is about where they’re going to take the company next.

Neon Starfish

Industry: Fashion

Founder: Holly Hart

Women in the workplace: Six

The Neon Starfish teamat the Festival Plaza Mall in Jebel Ali, Dubai, from left to right: founder Holly Hart, Hannah Matthews, Emily Thomas, Buhle Nyathi, Faith Williams and Ruth Miriam D'Cruz. Pawan Singh / The National
The Neon Starfish teamat the Festival Plaza Mall in Jebel Ali, Dubai, from left to right: founder Holly Hart, Hannah Matthews, Emily Thomas, Buhle Nyathi, Faith Williams and Ruth Miriam D'Cruz. Pawan Singh / The National

“I feel women are more organised with time management, to-do lists and in structuring a work day,” says entrepreneur Hart, 39. “I’ve always worked in creative environments and I feel women are better at that side of things. My experience has been that men lead head first, but I prefer planning and strategy and knowing what’s going to happen, rather than making a decision and leaping head first into it.”

Forward-planning and a slow and steady approach has been intrinsic to Hart’s success. Her fashion label, which started off three years ago as a line of 12 dresses sold from a stall at Dubai’s Ripe Market, has grown into a global business carried in 82 stockists across the world and includes two stand-alone stores in The Dubai Mall and Jebel Ali’s Festival Plaza.

I like having the opinions of a lot of women because I have to appeal to a lot of women

Holly Hart, founder, Neon Starfish

“I started Neon Starfish because I’d had two children and couldn’t find clothes to fit my new body shape,” says Hart, whose sons are 5 and 7.

Now she employs an international team, with staff from Argentina, India and the UK, reflecting the brand’s global perspective. “The vibe is positive, energetic. There’s laughter and shared stories and we just get on with it,” Hart says.

“I like having the opinions of a lot of women because I have to appeal to a lot of women. It’s a totally relaxed environment, especially when I’m trying on samples and we all critique the cut, shape and print. Men look at women’s clothing in a very different way than a woman. They tend to think: ‘Does she look nice?’ There’s no consideration for form or function.”

Another gender difference Hart says she notices is in attention-to-detail, for example when it comes to the prints the label is known for. “What I would call neon coral, a man would call orange,” she says with a laugh. “The difference for me is crucial, because a massive part of our brand is colour, print and style and a lot of men won’t get that. We have 400 different prints and it is vital to be able to say: ‘That is Bali vibes, that’s mini cactus, neon pink or tropical’.”

Clothes on display at the Neon Starfish store in Festival Plaza Mall in Jebel Ali. Pawan Singh / The National
Clothes on display at the Neon Starfish store in Festival Plaza Mall in Jebel Ali. Pawan Singh / The National

Hart, who has two sisters, cites her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit as her inspiration, saying the female-focused ethos at Neon Starfish reflects her own experiences growing up. “We are positive, happy and comfortable with each other,” she says. “It feels like family, like five sisters working together.”

It’s an ambience mother-of-one Sarah Brayley, 42, says she thrives in. “We’re a small team, but it’s relaxed and supportive, which makes the work-life balance so much easier, especially the understanding of how motherhood fits in,” she says.

“I’ve been in environments where my boss was male or it was a male-centric office and because men are often not expected to be as involved in childcare as women, motherhood was detrimental to women when it came to securing roles or promotions. Here, there’s no back-stabbing – we all have the same goal, we’re in it for the brand.”

Above all, Hart wants to foster a fun working environment. “I hope my staff would say I am hard-working, kind, positive and that I have time for them.”

Roar

Industry: Interior design

Founder: Pallavi Dean

Women in the workplace: 13

Kathryn Athreya, left, managing director of Roar, and Pallavi Dean, the interior design company's founder and creative director at their offices in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National
Kathryn Athreya, left, managing director of Roar, and Pallavi Dean, the interior design company's founder and creative director at their offices in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National

Architect and interior designer Dean, 38, says her company became an all-female workspace “organically”. “I used to teach interior design at the American University of Sharjah,” she says. “The course was 80 per cent women and 20 per cent men, but when it came to the workplace it was so different, the percentages were flipped. I wanted to correct the dynamic.”

She has corrected it with a team of 13 female interior designers from an array of countries – including Australia, Spain, India and Poland – responsible for creating award-winning commercial, hospitality, educational and residential spaces across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and beyond.

“We approach design from a place of empathy and of nurturing the client,” says Dean. “In my career I’ve come across designers who are driven by ego and style, but women, I’ve found, have a much different approach, coming from a more empathetic place. Of course, there are men who are detail-orientated and women who are macro-thinkers, but women, in general, biologically we’re nurturers and carers, so attention-­to-detail is a given. And in this industry, it’s all about detail.”

Women need to celebrate all the things we’re good at, just as men celebrate themselves all the time

Kathryn Athreya, managing director, Roar

Dean quit her corporate life seven years ago after becoming “sick of the politics” and the Indian-born Dubai resident established Pallavi Dean Interiors, with the intention of “creating my own little work family”. The firm morphed into Roar and, along with her managing director and close friend, Kathryn Athreya, 38, Dean is responsible for developing a new way of working that helps her employees thrive, whatever their life commitments.

“We both have kids, so we’re aware our employees have things like sports days and music recitals they want to attend, which is very important,” says Dean. “We also don’t worry about staff taking extra time for things like hair or nail appointments. So if we have an awards ceremony or big evening event to go to, I’m happy for them to get ready as they wish, because that’s important to them. We’ve had people from other companies say to us, ‘we can’t believe you let your staff leave the office for that’, but why not?”

Dean says the women she worked for in the past have influenced her approach to management. “In my previous two practices I had female bosses who were both excellent mentors,” she explains. “I can still reach out to them for help or advice – there was never any Queen Bee attitude and I wanted to recreate that mentor vibe in the office.”

Athreya says she is fully on board with this. “Women need to celebrate all the things we’re good at, just as men celebrate themselves all the time,” she says. “Statistics and research have shown that women in general are better at communicating and empathising, but as a gender we tend to undersell ourselves.”

The full team at Roar Design in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National
The full team at Roar Design in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National

Dean describes the construction industry, which the company works closely with, as “a boys’ club”. “When it came to my career in architecture, usually the top-­tier management would consist of about eight men and one woman and her place there would be denigrated as a ‘token’ hire,” she says.

“That’s the difference with us, we don’t have to put up with that. As women, we’ve all been on the receiving end of male arrogance, but in an all-female environment it’s easy to say ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I need help with this’ and for there to be zero judgment.”

The benefits of creating a nurturing work environment are clearly good business practice, as Dean says they have an “exceptionally low staff turnover rate”.

“We recently had our first resignation in six years. My hope is that our staff take with them a sense of confidence wherever they go. For me, I teach, I speak at events, I’m a mother – I want the women who work for me to see that you can have it all, that you don’t have to compromise on anything, you just need a deep sense of empathy and a can-do attitude.”

Athreya says she hopes for the same. “A lot of people make the mistake of thinking all-female offices must be bitchy, but the biggest thing for us is our complete transparency and honesty,” she says. “This is our family and our home from home. It’s a safe place away from politics or gossip. Here, if you have an issue, you can speak up.”

Music Monkeys

Industry: Children’s education and entertainment

Director: Beth Lowe

Women in the workplace: 16

The Music Monkeys team in Abu Dhabi, anti-clockwise from bottom left: founder Lisa Irwin, director Bethany Lowe, Ronda Martin-Chowdhari, Mary Hollingworth, Rachel Robertson and Sophie Allen. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
The Music Monkeys team in Abu Dhabi, anti-clockwise from bottom left: founder Lisa Irwin, director Bethany Lowe, Ronda Martin-Chowdhari, Mary Hollingworth, Rachel Robertson and Sophie Allen. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Two years after mum-of-four and former teacher Lisa Irwin started Music Monkeys in Abu Dhabi in 2012, Lowe did something diametrically opposed to the accountancy career she qualified for: she joined the group as a singer and music maker.

“Lisa was my next-door neighbour and she wanted to teach music in a fun and colourful way,” explains Lowe. “She started Music Monkeys at home with instruments for nursery age children and I attended a few sessions with my daughter. After Lisa became pregnant with her fourth child, I came on board to run the company.”

Music Monkeys offers music and movement classes for children aged three months and up, as well as hosting children’s parties and working with nurseries and schools to develop their music programmes. Now, with weekly classes across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, it has grown into a company that employs 16 women.

Lisa’s ethos has always been that family comes first

Beth Lowe, director, Music Monkeys

“The fact the company is all-female has happened organically,” says Lowe. “Obviously it’s all about employing the right candidates, but we’ve only ever attracted women and I think the part-time element appeals, as they can work around their other commitments. We’ve become this big community, our kids are all at school together, we’re neighbours, we spend a lot of time together and we’re a team of women who are supportive of each other. That’s what I love the most, it’s a really good support network. “One of the great things we offer is really flexible hours. Our staff choose when and where they work, which is very appealing to mums.”

As a mother to a son, 8, and a daughter, 6, Lowe says she has developed an appreciation for the women who perform a juggling act between parenting and work on a daily basis. “Without a doubt, women are much more flexible when it comes to work,” she says. “Lisa’s ethos has always been that family comes first, so we all wake up in the morning knowing that, which in turn helps create a nurturing, caring environment. And as a team we’ve all become very attached to one another – the energy is amazing.

Music Monkeys director Beth Lowe, left, with founder Lisa Irwin. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Music Monkeys director Beth Lowe, left, with founder Lisa Irwin. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

“Before, when I’ve worked in a corporate environment, it’s been very formal, but this type of work environment is different. Everyone goes the extra mile for one another, picking up the slack or dealing with situations that arise. I’ve found that all the women are willing to step up for one another.”

Sophie Allen, who has worked for Music Monkeys in Abu Dhabi for the past three years, says it was the working hours that attracted her to the role. “As women and mothers, Lisa and Beth understand more about the kind of lifestyle you have as a mum and that sometimes you can’t do something because your kid is sick or you want to do the school drop-off and pick-up, and they do all they can to help you achieve that,” she says.

“As far as a work environment goes, it’s very ­friendly, everyone is very welcoming.”

TishTash

Industry: Public relations

Founder and chief executive: Natasha Hatherall-Shawe

Women in the workplace: 20

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, owner of TishTash, centre, with her team of 20 female employees at their office in Dubai Media City UAE. Shruti Jain for The National
Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, owner of TishTash, centre, with her team of 20 female employees at their office in Dubai Media City UAE. Shruti Jain for The National

“We did have a guy come to work with us once and it was a disaster,” Hatherall-Shawe, 41, says with a laugh. “The very nature of PR is that it’s ultimately a people-­pleasing industry and I’ve found that women fit better.”

She should know. With 18 years in the industry under her belt, Hatherall-Shawe set up TishTash in Dubai in 2012 and the company, which specialises in beauty, health and wellness brands, has grown to employ 20 women at its Media City office.

There’s life admin to take care of during the workday. I believe flexibility promotes loyalty

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, founder, TishTash

“All the facets of what makes a great PR person – the ability to multitask, attention-to-detail, hosting events, providing a personal touch – I have found that women do it better, and for us, the female focus has been a great part of our success,” she says.

The company provides media relations and PR to more than 60 clients across a range of industries, including beauty, fashion, wellness and general retail.

“In terms of basic fundamentals, such as checking, writing and maintaining spreadsheets and basic administration, I feel like women are more diligent,” she explains. “And as we’re a niche agency handling beauty and wellness clients, women tend to know more about the latest trends and shades. There’s so much to know in this field and my team are obsessed with beauty.”

The word “flexibility” comes up again and again, proving it’s less a buzzword and more a core value when it comes to all-women workplaces. “Half the team are mums and we’re really passionate about flexible working,” she says. “I’ve found that’s something not a lot of companies in the region do that well. People have kids, they also want to be professional. I’m happy for mums to do the school run, then work from home. As long as the job is done, I don’t mind where they do it.

Inside the TishTash offices in Dubai. Shruti Jain for The National
Inside the TishTash offices in Dubai. Shruti Jain for The National

“But flexibility doesn’t just apply to working mums. People have appointments with doctors or banks, there’s life admin to take care of during the workday. I believe flexibility promotes loyalty.”

Certainly, it is this understanding of the motherhood-career balancing act that attracted PR assistant Katie Turner, 33, a single mother-of-three with no nanny, to the company. “There’s no way a male boss would understand the importance of both being successful in the workplace but also needing to be there for my children when it matters most,” she says.

Updated: February 19, 2020 05:36 PM

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