x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mentorship is a valuable tool for ambitious women in the UAE

The next generation of women achievers will benefit from drawing on the experiences of those who went before them.

Although in the UAE there are three times as many women as men in tertiary education, young women are significantly under-represented in the workforce. There is only a 15 per cent labour force participation rate of eligible Emiratis, and women hold only 10 per cent of managerial positions.

The UAE has invested significantly in women. It ranks highest in terms of gender equality in the Arab world. But more women need encouragement and support to enter the workforce in order for the UAE to harness the full potential of its young people.

Young women in the UAE are talented, eager to learn and thirsty for opportunity. Khuloud Al Nuwais, chief sustainability officer at the Emirates Foundation, recounted last week in a conference on girls’ education that young Emirati women would queue after events, often for hours, to ask about her career. Young women crave the opportunity to hear from women who have succeeded, to glean knowledge from other women’s experiences.

At the Abu Dhabi SME Congress and Expo last year, many women said that while women face barriers to entry in the office, many are plagued by their own self-doubt and questions regarding family-work balance. Women find themselves in a dilemma. As a highly educated generation, they are passionate and ambitious. Connected to a traditional family lifestyle, however, their ambition often wavers in favour of becoming a stay at home wife or mother.

Women are the key to a new wave of talent, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. So how can ambition be fostered?

There is an invaluable tool in the hands of every woman in leadership – their own individual narrative. Mentorship provides a platform for women, pioneer in their fields, to share their narratives – stories and experiences that they have accumulated throughout their career.

Woman-to-woman mentorship programmes provide a venue for exchange, best practices, advice and networking to help women transition into the workforce. Effective mentorship can transform the way women approach and help one another, mirroring age-old practices of mentorship among sisters or a mother and daughter.

In the UAE, mentorship has begun to interest councillors at various high schools and universities. In May, the Dubai Women’s College held a forum titled “Emirati Women Breaking Barriers”. The forum shared the stories of more than 30 Emirati women, recounting their paths to success, their challenges and the conversations they had to persuade reluctant family members. Mentorship programmes that bring women such as the first female co-pilot on Etihad or the first female judge together with young Emirati women are needed.

Instead of a one-day event, these programmes could create a one-year curriculum. And while mentorship programmes are often small and individualised, they have a ripple effect in society. According to a study by Catalyst in 2012, 65 per cent of women who have been mentored in some capacity go on to mentor another woman, fostering an ever expanding cycle of leadership.

An example is TechWomen, a five-week mentorship programme for women in the Middle East in science and technology. The mentees pair with mentors from Silicon Valley. They often return the favour, mentoring younger women back home. For 29 years, the Radcliffe Mentorship Program at Harvard University has paired female alumni mentors and students. Although both programmes are great models, mentorship fostered and implemented domestically is more attune to the challenges, restraints and opportunities in the local labour force.

As a fourth year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, I founded the Women’s Mentorship Program in October. The pilot programme consisted of 16 female mentors from the community and 21 female student mentees. Hailing from 21 countries, including two Emiratis, they meet at least once a month. The conversations are casual, over coffee or lunch, but they allow students to form relationships with their mentors.

“[It] is useful to not only gain a different perspective on things but to also learn how there are various ways to go about achieving your career,” explained one mentee in a feedback forum. “Not only that, but coming from a conservative background, I think it is necessary to think and discuss how my goals for life might (or might not) be different to societal expectations of me as a woman.”

Fostering mentorship programmes involves female professionals, young women, businesses and families who together, collaboratively, can empower the next generation of women leaders in the UAE.

Nicole Lopez Del Carril is a fourth-year student at the New York University Abu Dhabi