x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE girls shatter the glass ceiling

For some females, the glass ceiling is there to be shattered. Alexandria Gouveia meets four expat women who are breaking down barriers and making their mark in a 'man's world', while still retaining their feminine side.

Maxine Redding enjoys getting her hands dirty and putting her technical skills to good use.
Maxine Redding enjoys getting her hands dirty and putting her technical skills to good use.

Maxine Redding has always been "one of the boys". At six years old, when most girls her age were prancing around in their mothers' stilettos, their faces smeared with lipstick, Redding had her first tool set and was building things. "I wanted to be like my dad," she says, pointing out that it wasn't child labour. "I had my own set so I could help my dad while he renovated our house. I drove my first earthmover when I was 11 and learnt how to use a spirit level before a computer."

Despite living in Dubai for 13 years, the 29 -year-old from Newcastle, England, isn't what you call an expat brat. With a proactive approach to life, Redding's career choices have always leaned towards active roles, from technical director at Dubai's Palladium to her current role as project associate at Flash Entertainment, the company responsible for bringing Coldplay and George Michael to the UAE.

"I started my sound and light industry education at Gearhouse, here in the UAE," she explains. "It was an excellent beginning and since then I've moved back and forth between the event management and the technical side of things, it's always been one or the other. I love working on the technical side because it fuels my sense of curiosity, and events appeal to me because I'm obsessed with detail and love the feeling of achievement from creating an event."

Unafraid to get her hands dirty, Redding can be seen hanging from the ceilings, fixing cables, setting up scaffolding and operating heavy machinery at the Palladium. While her life at Flash is somewhat subdued in comparison, Redding says she'll be back onsite soon.

"It's perceived as a masculine role," she says of her work, "because originally, production people were always viewed as "roadies". There was heavy lifting involved, getting dirty, and long, strenuous hours. Traditionally, people didn't see it as a place suitable for women."

While Redding isn't put off by the stereotype, she says: "I definitely get treated differently because of my gender. Sometimes,

o work in such an arena, especially with regard to driving cherry pickers or forklifts. I had one client who would only speak to my number two because he was a man. It's difficult getting the boys to let you be one of the boys, and yet remain a female. I'm continually proving myself to other technicians who assume I know nothing because I'm blonde and female."

Redding's work clothes range from smart casual office wear to boots and cargo pants when onsite, yet she's not without her accessories, thanks to her glamorous mum, Pauline. "My mum has always taught me to remain a female and not become a complete boy," says Redding with a laugh. "She believes you can look elegant even when climbing ladders and crawling under stages." As such, she's never without her three-times-a-week blowdries, and will not be seen without perfect mani-pedis.

Redding believes women can't use the gender card when things get tough. "The glass ceiling is becoming less and less of a reality," she says. "While, yes, women do face a few issues being in a male-dominated environment, it's not frowned upon. I think females can do anything they want to; I don't think gender is even an issue anymore."

Sophie Blanchard isn't your average working mum. The Abu Dhabi resident is a record-breaker, having made history as the first female captain for Etihad, taking command of her debut flight on September 8, 2010, from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow.

While Blanchard, 33, may be young for a captain, she's been surrounded by planes since she was six. "When my parents divorced, my mum remarried a man who had an airline in Belgium, so I was always around people who worked in aviation. I'd play near the planes while my stepdad fixed them, and I loved listening to all his stories about flying.

"Aviation wasn't a passion for me, I didn't have posters of planes on my walls. It was just part of my environment and I found it exciting. The company was so small they didn't even have any cabin crew. The only people aboard the planes were pilots, so for me it was never a question about being part of the cabin crew. I wanted to be a pilot."

Blanchard, who comes from Lille, France, went to aviation school when she was 17, flying her first plane within the year. She got her commercial licence in the US when she was 18, and began flying a cargo aircraft for a Belgium-based company. She rapidly clocked-up her flying hours as a first officer so she could fulfil her dream of becoming a captain. However, the dream took longer than she expected, with the bankruptcy of her former company and the arrival of her two children.

"I took two breaks during my training because I had two babies [Ema, now eight, and Guillaume, four]. The moment you find out you're pregnant you're not allowed to fly because of the lack of oxygen in the plane," she says. "When I stopped flying I really missed it, especially as I was living next to an airport. You get so used to flying to new places, then all of the sudden you're at home for over nine months, you get bored. Life is totally different."

In 2007, Blanchard joined Etihad and finally found the time to build up her flight hours, and pass the subsequent interview and test stages to become a captain. She believes her chief role is a positive sign of times changing for women in the workplace. "In the past, women rarely worked away from home so you never saw many female captains, but now, if they have the ambition, women are encouraged to achieve their goals and dreams."

However, while women are welcomed, Blanchard says she still works extra hard to prove her worth. "Though I'm not treated differently, I try not to do anything that's considered too feminine. I want the guy next to me to be confident in me and not worry that I can't do something because I'm a girl. I just want to be recognised for the hard work that I've done and be respected for my achievements."

While her mother is enthusiastic about her deserved promotion, Blanchard's stepfather was more philosophical. "When I told him I had been made captain he just said: 'You have a big responsibility coming.' And he's right, I do. As captain you're in control, you're the final authority on the plane."

But every career has its downside and for Blanchard, it's being away from her family. "That's the biggest obstacle," she says sadly. "Although I'm never away for longer than three days in a row, it's so sad, and hard, to leave especially when they see you packing, and start crying. But you have to be selfish at times and when I'm home I have so much time with them as I'm there 24 hours. I can take them to school and put them to bed."

Freya Downton moved from Hertfordshire in the UK to Dubai in January 2009 when she "fell" into her job as operations co-ordinator for the event services division of scaffolding company Al Laith. Slim, pretty and undoubtedly girly - she's a self-confessed Gilmore Girls fan - Downton isn't intimidated at her workplace, despite being one of only four women working in a team of 1,050 people.

Her secret to success in a man's world? "Know your facts," she says. "I think different nationalities give women different levels of respect, depending on what they're used to, but people will always change their attitude instantly if you know what you're talking about. It's important to always give the right impression and not make it a gender debate. I'm respected in the office due to the different skill set I bring to the team."

Downton, 26, may work in the events division but it's not a desk-bound role. She's involved from the initial quotations to the building onsite, and eventual dismantling. "Any staging, towers, grandstand seating, and roofs you see at concerts or corporate events, that's what we do," she explains. "Although I'm not a scaffolder or a rigger, I've had to develop an understanding and learn the lingo, and get involved with the guys on site." Downton's projects have included concerts by Sting, Elton John and Santana at Meydan as well as the UFC and Womad in Abu Dhabi.

Downton says that because she's female, she's often mistaken for being someone's secretary, but she's rarely treated as inferior. In fact most of the work banter is all in good humour. "When I wear something fashionable to work the boys always make jokes about me dressing in the dark. I've also got a skirt that bunches at the front, so when I wear it they constantly tell me I have it stuck in my pants."

But that doesn't stop Downton from adding a feminine touch to the workplace. "In the office I always dress smartly. If I'm going onsite we have high-vis vests, hard hats and steel toe cap boots. However, while most people wear jeans I'll be in a skirt and my own pink steel toe-cap boots. Why not?"

Despite feeling the need to work harder to prove herself, Downton believes being a female in the workplace has its advantages too: "I can give people more rubbish, because they're more likely to take it from me, as long as I smile…"

Alix Capper-Murdoch is essentially Jeremy Clarkson in heels. She's the host of Motorsport Talk on Dubai Eye 103.8FM, a motorsport commentator, the first female racing instructor at Dubai Autodrome, a part-time DJ and a stunt driver.

The petite brunette moved to Dubai in 2004 from Aberdeen, Scotland, and has since developed a reputation as one of the leading motor racing experts in the region.

"I joined the Royal Air Force as a driver at the age of 16," she says in her clipped Aberdonian accent. "While there I got every licence from motorcycles to articulated lorries and everything in between."

Having developed a passion for all things motor-based, Capper-Murdoch left the Forces to launch a career in broadcasting. As a woman interested in motorsports, and with vast experience in the cockpit, she quickly established a niche.

"While working as a radio presenter I was spending a lot of time at the local racetrack and was asked if I would become their pit-lane commentator," she remembers. With her fast talk, impressive knowledge and a hands-on attitude, Capper-Murdoch, 30, was soon able to make her mark. "From commentating I went on to work with a stunt driver, travelling the F1 Circuit. After that, I worked in the British Touring Car Championship, ASCAR and the Renault Clio Cup, before coming to Dubai and working at Dubai Autodrome and on the local radio."

Since living in the GCC, Capper-Murdoch has become the first female motor racing instructor in the region, often teaching people from countries where women don't even drive. She's also the first female lead commentator for an international championship - covering GP2 Asia, the feeder series to F1. Her line of work also involves her smashing up cars for hit commercials and movies, including Ali F Mostafa's City Of Life.

Capper-Murdoch admits it hasn't always been easy. "It's always been thought of as a 'man's' job'," she says. "Even at the track, people are shocked there's a girl among the boys and even more shocked when I take them out on the track."

She admits her biggest obstacle at work is proving she is as good, if not better, than any man in her position. "The boys at work laugh when they realise I have more licences than them. I can be in a race car one minute, a motorbike the next and then a bus or truck the day after. They do praise me when I do well but I have to put up with a lot of mocking if I ever do something wrong. I haven't really slipped up yet, but they all have."