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Conversation with a Woman Leader in a Gulf State

An interview with one of the rare senior level female managers in one of the small, oil-rich countries along the Arabian Gulf. Her savvy and determination set her apart.

The senior manager, draped in the traditional black abbaya with her hair modestly tucked beneath her head scarf, smiles continuously over tea as she describes what it takes to become a female leader within a business in her small country. She treats me to one of her favorite indulgences: a proper high tea at a fancy international hotel, complete with Earl Grey tea, scones, clotted cream, and a good assortment of small sandwiches with thin slices of cucumber and egg.  No crust.

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I am in the country on business myself, playing a small part in an initiative that has been underway for a few years.  My job is to help line managers understand better how to work with HR in an effort to improve how business gets done in general, and to help young locals, in particular, to succeed.  The goal of the program (like the “–ization” goals of other oil-rich countries in the region) is to boost the number of locals in key jobs in local companies, which are primarily in the oil sector.  While a goal of much of the world is to wean their economies off dependence on foreign oil, a key objective in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia is to wean their economies off their dependence on foreign expertise, to build a business culture rich in leadership and managerial competencies that will serve the countries’ interests beyond oil in the future.

This woman laid out the central story: oil wealth is creating so many opportunities to create other businesses that the main constraint in achieving their “-ization” goal is supply. Like all the Gulf states, this one has a very small population relative to the size of the opportunity. How can these young people be trained and motivated to take on the most challenging jobs of managers and leaders?  The change from traditional desert dweller to sophisticated engineers and businesspeople has come in only one or two short generations.  At present, a huge workforce of ex-patriots holds most of the jobs.

Since I have not yet gotten permission to use her name for this blog, I will refer to her as L, which is not the first letter of her name.  Our conversation takes about an hour, and goes like this:

K:            Do young people understand what it takes to succeed at a professional level?

L:             Yes, I think they do.  They know that they need a formal education. Our country is providing this through schools and universities.  We have some very good institutions. Women in particular are keen to get an education. More girls are now getting engineering degrees than are boys. 

K:            That’s pretty impressive. In the US, we like to think that we are advanced on these things, but this year marks the first time in history that the entering freshman class at MIT has more girls than boys – this despite girls’ achievements in math and science at the high school level. What do your country’s girls plan to do with their engineering degrees?

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L:             We need more women in the energy sector, and they start out wanting to do that.  What the don’t consider is that energy sector jobs are mostly in remote locations. I myself had to drive an hour each way by myself when I started.

K:            An hour’s distance is considered to be a remote location?

L:             Yes.  In our culture, that is considered to be a very long commute. The girl is then away from home for too long during the day. How do you have a social life?  How can you care for young kids?  Many parents and girls also fear having a girl driving alone for that long.

K:            Maybe the companies or the government need to create some housing in the remote locations?

L:             That is not really how we do it. People live with their families.  Part of the challenge of “-ization” is that the girls have a hard time adjusting to the remote locations. Another hard part is a widespread issue with the boys. Boys seem to think that they can go straight to management. They seem to think that they will work for one or two years as an engineer, then get a big promotion.   That’s really not how it works.

K:            How did it work for you?

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L:             I had been a teacher. Several years ago, I joined one of the companies in the energy sector. Yes, it was in a remote location, but I was very determined to succeed. Hesitant, yes, but also determined. I had several children. The youngest one was in grade school, and we had a grandmother at home. So I could drive the one hour each way.  I started as a supervisor. I took a diploma in my functional specialty.  I did well, and was promoted to the head of the group.

K:            Are there many locals at this managerial level?

L:             Very few.  Then, a year later, my boss left the company for another job elsewhere, and I became the manager.  The function and the job were huge but I tackled it. 

K:            How would you describe yourself as a manager?  As a woman trying to get ahead in this culture?

 

L:             I do not like to make the sole decision. I always like to discuss decisions very openly. I like to be very transparent about how decisions are made. I have a meeting every week to discuss things with my team.  I think this is very much a part of who I am as a manager and as a person.  I also delegate authority.  I tell my people: “You can make decisions up to this amount of money.” This makes them feel good.

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K:            One of the issues that I hear a lot about in your country is managing diversity since you have so many ex-pats.  The number I have heard is that ex-pats outnumber locals 5 to 1.  How do you manage that?

L:             Diversity is not an issue for me because I am very transparent. In our company, all of our HR policies and guidelines are on-line.  This transparency gives people a great feeling of security.  They know that they are being treated fairly.  If there is any policy change under consideration, we make a discussion about it.  I take into account the many different points of view. Individuals may not be happy with the ultimate outcome, but they do understand that they are being taken into account.  I also have a very open door policy.  Anyone can come into my office and ask me anything.  Ironically, the one issue I do have in that regard is that that it is sometimes very difficult for locals to be managed by other locals.  They don’t want to be managed.

K:            Since you are the first woman to reach your level in your organization, I have to ask: are men willing to be managed by a woman? By you?

L:             Local men are not as open with me as they would be with a local man.  We have a tradition here in our country.  That is, the men have a tradition here in our country.  They have a majlis, which is a gathering place for men. There, they discuss “manly matters.”  Or, they may go to a shisha, have a water pipe and discuss matters, even matters at work.  Lots of decisions are made in these places.

K:            I have to say, this sounds familiar.  It is guys going out for a beer, or fishing.  How do you still succeed in the face of this institutionalized separation?

L:             I counteract this by telephoning.  By staying late to get their ears.  By asking them to join me in meetings.

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K:            You mean, you make your own majlis?

L:             (laughing) I have my own majlis, yes.

K:            How typical are you as a woman here?  Will we be seeing more women like you succeeding? Even going beyond what you have accomplished?  You yourself are still young…

L:             Most of my friends work.  Far more women work than don’t. They continue their educations.  Women are very determined, more determined than the men.  They know that they need to prove themselves capable. They want to be able to support their families.  Men tend to be more attracted to private companies where they think they can be more in charge, but women are entering the larger organizations where there are larger jobs.  Many times, that is a better way to really succeed.  Some of these private companies are not really businesses, if you know what I mean.

 

We can all wish L the very best in her career.  She is a tough and graceful lady bridging a major gulf in the Gulf.