x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'Before we are men and women, we are humans'

Female leader in man's world says looking at perceptions is crucial

Maryam Al Thani is chairwoman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for the UAE. Christopher Pike / The National
Maryam Al Thani is chairwoman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for the UAE. Christopher Pike / The National

Maryam Al Thani is quite used to blazing trails.

The female leader and engineer was last year elected chairwoman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for the UAE - the first woman to hold such a role in the Middle East.

Ms Al Thani, 38, had big shoes to fill, as her predecessor held the post for 16 years. But the passionate Emirati insists she was not intimidated.

"I was nominated by men and voted for by men," she says. "I truly believe the key to being successful in a leading position is knowing how to communicate.

"Considering people's perceptions and attitudes is very important. Before we are men and women, we are human beings."

Formerly a project manager at the cable maker Ducab, she admits winning over her mostly male staff was sometimes a challenge.

"There were men in their fifties and sixties and it was difficult to get them on my side," she says.

"Here I was, this young lady that men had to report to. But with time, I applied the management style and everything I learnt in university to earn their respect."

Ms Al Thani recalls being heckled by an older male employee when she was addressing her department.

"I calmly told him to come to my office once we were done. I told him if you want to shout, that's fine, but do it in the privacy of my office.

"I said, 'you're the age of my father and I respect you, but I expect the same in return'.

"He laughed and never showed his anger that way again."

The challenge of being a female leader in the UAE can be intensified by cultural factors.

"Sometimes you have to speak to them like they are your family, for example, as though I'm an older sister," Ms Al Thani says. "But you need to do that while controlling your emotions and staying professional."

Career-driven women have double the responsibility on their shoulders, she says, and this is when family support is crucial.

"Managing a business is still easier than managing life at home. There's nothing like raising children and those responsibilities will not go anywhere. Work and marriage … life is all about compromise."

But stereotypes remain.

"We always expect women to be supportive and when they're not, we say it's because she's a woman," Ms Al Thani says.

"The truth is men can be just as jealous and judgmental but society sees it differently. If you're a leader it doesn't matter if you're male or female. What matters are your skills."

 

mismail@thenational.ae