Forum in the capital stresses the need for networking and changing a perception of inequality.
Career life is worth the hurdles, businesswomen told
ABU DHABI // Being a female leader in a man's world is tough, but well worth the challenge, said attendees at the Women in Leadership forum yesterday.
Female business leaders from across the region attended the event, which provided a platform for women to share their experiences with other women who are looking for opportunities to grow and develop in their careers.
"While many options exist for businessmen, we noticed a void for a network of women who hold a very strong position," said Sophie Le Ray, the chief executive of Naseba Group, the business-information company that organized the event, which was also designed to bridge the gap between western countries and emerging markets, Ms Le Ray said.
Participants singled out factors they said are key to nurturing talent, including the right personality, education, and social and governmental support. However, they also stressed that though women have made strides in the workplace, many challenges still exist.
According to Afnan Rashid al Zayani, the president of the Mena Businesswomen's Network and Al Zayani Commercial Services, one of these challenges is the lack of women in decision-making positions and economic roles.
"Women are still an untapped resource when it comes to these positions," she said.
To address this issue, businesswomen councils have been established across the Emirates to give guidance to aspiring leaders. Ameera Abdel Rahim bin Karam, the chairwoman of the Sharjah Businesswomen Council, says her organisation serves various functions, including helping interns find success in business initiatives, offering financial support to individuals, and giving women a sounding board, a place in which they can voice their concerns.
"We also provide consultancy for women who are starting businesses," Ms Karam said. "[Consultants] are outsourced so that we can provide each individual with effective support depending on the industry she's pursuing."
Another issue highlighted at the conference was the reluctance of women to use the media for publicity.
"Most of us have the knowledge and skills, but are too shy to talk about them," Ms Karam said. She attributed this to the mindset that holds that women are always taken care of and protected by their families, and are usually represented by a male member of the family. She insisted, however, that this is an issue that must be resolved.
"We need to ensure that successful women become advocates for change and promote themselves so that they may be role models for others," she said. Ms Karam added that the businesswomen councils also provide public relations and media training.
Farida Abdullah Kamber al Awadhi, the president of the Association of Professional Interior Designers, said she has been reluctant to portray herself in the media. "Out of every 10 interviews," she said, "I'd only go to one.
"But I soon realised it's our duty to be role models and share our experience to other young ladies who have similar ambitions."
Fatima al Jaber, the chief operating officer of the Al Jaber Group, said that in addition to using the media as a catalyst for change, women need to be trained to handle themselves in a professional context.
"Females still raise an eyebrow when they are confronted with the idea of going to mixed [gender] functions," she said.
"However, networking is an essential element to being a successful business leader. To make professional women more comfortable with this, we are involving them in meetings at the Chamber of Commerce, which professional delegates from all over the world attend."
Philip Anderson, the Insead Alumni Fund Chaired Professor of Entrepreneurship, agreed that networking is critical to climbing the career ladder.
"When it comes to hiring individuals on the board, companies look for two things - what they can add to the board in terms of their experience, as well as their social capital. Who do you know and how can they help us? Women need to be educated so they have credible answers."
Employers have a lot to earn from hiring women in the workplace, experts added.
"Having a mix of strengths and weaknesses is key. It's the same reason you don't want people from the same culture, religion, nationality, etc.," Mr Anderson said. "Companies need to diversify, and women add to the mix."
Working-woman stigma 'cultural'
Experts at the Women in Leadership Forum said that the stigma attached to the working woman is mainly cultural.
"Prophet Mohammed's wife was a businesswoman," said Farida Abdullah Kamber al Awadhi, the president of the Association of Professional Interior Designers. "We always hear this, but we never really take the time to understand what it means.
In fact, the first business role in Islam was given to a woman. And now, we're saying that women can't work or leave the home."
Ms al Awadhi said that women play a major role in changing social perceptions.
"The mother has a responsibility to educate her children and give them values. They are capable of raising their sons in a manner that allows them to think they are better than their sisters. Or they can raise them to be gentlemen and respect their female counterparts," she said.
Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London, cited examples in Islamic history of women pursuing work. One was Wellada ibn Zaydun, a princess and daughter of the Caliph Al-Mustakfi, who had her own literary salon at which men and women used to mingle freely.