x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Emirati women beat the odds to become leaders in higher education

More on International Women's Day in UAE The importance of women in leadership roles is emphasised as few women rise to the top in UAE's higher education.

Dr. Muhadditha Al Hashimi, the new female director at Sharjah Women's College in University City, is one of the few Emirati women in leadership roles within higher education. Sarah Dea / The National
Dr. Muhadditha Al Hashimi, the new female director at Sharjah Women's College in University City, is one of the few Emirati women in leadership roles within higher education. Sarah Dea / The National

DUBAI // Like many countries around the world, the UAE has a major imbalance in the number of women in leadership roles within higher education.

While there are many school head teachers, the same cannot be said at the country's colleges and universities.

Dr Muhadditha Al Hashimi, the first woman to become a director within the federal Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), is looking to change this as she takes charge of Sharjah Women's College.

Dr Al Hashimi taught in health sciences at the college until 2008, when she was chosen as chief executive of Dubai Healthcare City. She has now returned to education, which is where her passion lies.

A mother of five children aged 10 to 21, she is a firm believer in self motivation.

"It's a misconception if people think a family life hinders people from progression," she said, but admitted it has not been easy, with her children at one time all under the age of 9.

"I had five kids which I had while studying [for my PhD] and working. It's all about managing your time. I'm a better mother now for having an education and a career."

While there are many women in leadership roles in business, there are fewer in higher education. At the American University in Dubai (AUD), five of six deans are male.

At Zayed University the ratio is better, only five of eight are male and at UAE University though they have eight Emirati deans out of 13, none is female.

At the American University of Sharjah, all four deans are male, though two of its five vice chancellors are women, one of whom is Emirati. There is not a single female chancellor, president or provost at any institution in the UAE.

Aisha Al Naqbi, an Emirati researcher at the British University in Dubai who focuses on the importance of role models for Emirati women, said there must be more of them in higher education.

"The Ministry of Education has many female school principals but it's not the same at the higher education level," Ms Al Naqbi said.

Dr Al Hashimi said these role models were also important for men.

"It's important that men see women in leadership roles so they learn to appreciate and respect women," she said.

She said men needed to still become more "accepting of women going into careers and studying abroad". From her own experience, the support of her father and husband was crucial.

"My husband is open-minded, but without his support this wouldn't have been as easy."

Dr Al Hashimi's father, who has worked at the Ministry of Education for 30 years, sent his four daughters to the US to study.

"Against all odds, my dad said I was going," she said, even though she was met with societal disapproval when she went, in 1985.

Tarifa Al Zaabi is now dean of student success and community outreach at HCT. She is another young Emirati woman rising up the ranks since joining 12 years ago after graduating from Sharjah College.

Ms Al Zaabi has much to balance: an eight year old son, a full-time job and another year left before finishing her PhD. Her husband works in the oil industry and is away much of the time.

"I'm a good juggler," she said. "Once you are a mother, there are so many expectations; to look after your children and home plus the expectations of your job, to fulfil those as a man would."

She said women like her and Dr Al Hashimi are "paving the way" for future role models among Emirati women.

At AUD, Dr Mejda Bahlous has just been made chair of the department of accounting and finance, one step below becoming dean.

Dr Bahlous has travelled the world in her academic life, from France to her native Tunisia and most recently to Bahrain before coming to the UAE in September.

She said one of the biggest hurdles to women holding high positions was balancing family life and work. To take on research, the path to promotion, can be a hurdle and women can get stuck on the career track.

Dr Catherine Hill is the dean of education at AUD, the school's highest-ranking female administrator, although she also teaches and organises the curriculum and new programmes, in addition to taking on research.

Although the female presence in education is still low, Dr Hill said the Arabian Gulf is "very progressive" in its work to bring more women into the fold, using the likes of Sheikha Lubna as role models for young Emiratis.

Having women's input at such high level is vital, in addition to their being role models for those who aspire to academic careers, she said.

"I even see this with the women who come and study in the evening," Dr Hill said of her working students, many of whom are also mothers.

"Women have an exceedingly bigger challenge if their hopes and dreams are to advance their careers while having a strong, united family.

"I'm amazed at what I see women doing in this part of the world."

mswan@thenational.ae