x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Before the UAE's first female ambassadors were appointed in September the highest rungs of international diplomacy remained the final frontier for many Emirati women.

Sheikha Najla Al Qassimi, the UAE's Ambassador to Sweden, encourages women to prove themselves a in the workplace.
Sheikha Najla Al Qassimi, the UAE's Ambassador to Sweden, encourages women to prove themselves a in the workplace.

In her new role, Sheikha Najla Al Qassimi represents the great strides taken by Emirati women but more still needs to be done to break down gender stereotyping in the workplace, she says. Speaking in depth for the first time since being named in September as one of the country's first female ambassadors, Sheikha Najla, who is posted to Sweden, said that although women now make up 66 per cent of the government's workforce, they are still too often pigeonholed into certain careers, such as secretarial and administration roles.

"Now it's time for women to prove themselves and show that they are capable of working professionally and effectively and compete in the working market," she said. "There are some social barriers but women have to reach beyond. When I need a secretary, I will be assigned a lady rather than a man. It's still the case that a certain type of job is considered good for a certain gender. There's a political will to break down these stereotypes but the change must also come from within the workforce."

Sheikha Najla added that with small steps over time things could change. "We can do this starting with teaching our children how to respect women and the role of women in this life, and teaching the surrounding community to respect their work." Born a year before the unification of the Emirates, Sheikha Najla was raised during a time of exponential growth as her fledgling country spread its wings.

The progress of the new country allowed her to carve out a career. Although she maintains there is further to go with regards to women's empowerment, she said support from the leadership provided an opportunity for women to forge ahead and push for their place as the country evolved. "I grew up witnessing the rapid development of the country and I, as an Emirati woman, always felt a part of the development and also had a dream to reach a position where I could assist in this rapid growth," she said. "The fact that our nation always treated women with full respect, care and support, made it seem more possible."

Sheikha Najla said that while a top position always felt within her reach, that didn't mean that the road was easy. Like many new graduates the dream job was not waiting for her when she left university. Although wanting a career in politics, she began work as a trainee at the HSBC bank. It was in 1999 that she secured a position at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, training that she says was invaluable for her later career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"My major was political science and it was always my passion. When I finally had the opportunity to work in the field I studied I jumped at it and moved to Abu Dhabi." As part of Ras al Khaimah's ruling family there is no denying that one could assume the Sheikha had an advantage over her fellow women but she maintains that the opportunities that were available for her are there for anyone who has the drive to achieve.

"Doors are opened and opportunities are created for all hard working people, men or women. Maybe a person from a more humble background actually has more motivation to work harder, and every citizen has the access to education and the opportunity to do well." At 37 years old, the UAE has made great advances with regards to women's empowerment. The country now has four female government ministers, and its first female judge and women constitute 23 per cent of the UAE's Federal National Council, a higher proportion than in any Arab parliament.

It was under the last Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, that women began being sworn in for careers in diplomacy. As soon as women started working in the field, it was only a matter of time before there was a female ambassador, Sheikha Najla said. She was one of two female ambassadors appointed. Dr Hissa al Otaiba, a member of the UN's International Forum for Women, was named as envoy to Spain and began her diplomatic duties on Nov 3.

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, a member of the Sharjah royal house, was the first of the UAE's female ministers. She was appointed Economics and Planning Minister and later became Minister of Foreign Trade. Sheikha Najla describes her as "an inspiration". "It was just at that time Sheikha Lubna was appointed as a minister, and so it became very obvious that one day one of our group would be appointed as ambassador, but it takes time."

"Once the door is open for you to be a diplomat then it has to be a second step to be an ambassador, because it's a natural growth in your career." After three years in Abu Dhabi, where she worked at the department of European and American Affairs, she moved to Geneva where she spent four years as a diplomat representing the UAE at the United Nations. Sheikha Najla fights the assertion that the path has been made easier for women because of the Government's drive to encourage females into leadership positions, pointing out that because two thirds of the public sector's employees are women and there are still only scattered positions for women at the top, if anything it is more difficult.

"It wasn't an easy competition to prove yourself to the leaders," she said. At a the Arab Women's Conference in Abu Dhabi last month the Syrian first lady, Asma al Assad, said while she wanted more women to be involved in politics, culture, medicine and business, it had to be on individual merit, not because they were women. Although it comes with prestige, being a pioneer in a new career brings its own pressures. Sheikha Najla recalled mixed emotions on being appointed ambassador: "I was proud but I was also a little bit worried. I felt that maybe as the first woman I would be under focus which makes you a little bit nervous. You want to prove you can deliver what is required. I'm hoping that I will be up to the responsibility given to me."

With a community of just 3,000 Emiratis in Sweden, and only 12 in Stockholm itself, the posting may not be one of the most prominent but it is still important that women are represented in the official face the UAE presents to the world. For anyone, a career in international diplomacy is challenging. Sheikha Najla, who is unmarried and travelled to Sweden alone, admits she has had to make sacrifices. "You have to put behind you so many relationships, so many friends. It's a very demanding job, but on the other hand it's a very rewarding job, when you establish new friendships, new contacts and always of course, the most important thing is to serve your country.

"I was born in an ambitious country and... my new position was entrusted with the responsibility which I hope to be good for. But what is important to me to is be creative and to reach for perfection in what I like to do most: diplomacy." lmorris@thenational.ae