360° Analysis

The Abaya in the Boardroom

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November 11, 2013 08:28 EDT
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With strong role models and new opportunities, Arab women are making their mark in big business.

By Jane Williams

“I’m a serious private equity professional and not just a woman in finance.” At 26, Haif Zamzam, is senior analyst for Masdar Capital, the private equity arm of the multi-billion dollar Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, and one of a growing number of educated and ambitious young women who refuse to accept that any obstacle can stand between them and success.

She is also an Emirati from a traditional Muslim family with strong ties to her culture and faith. And she is a member of the first MBA module to be held on INSEAD’s Abu Dhabi campus, in the winter of 2013.

“Women are empowered here, there are opportunities,” Zamzam insists, referring to life in her native UAE. She describes a situation very different to the Western perception of the “oppressed Muslim wife and daughter.”

“I Could Be That”

“When you look around Abu Dhabi and in the broader UAE, you see that women are taking on really high positions here, they’re represented at board level and they’re at ministerial level and you really feel that ‘I could be that one day.’” Zamzam spoke with INSEAD Knowledge during her MBA class module on the Asia Campus in Singapore in February.

This quiet advancing of Arab women is not confined to the UAE; across the region they are becoming increasingly visible in the boardroom and taking on leadership roles in both the public and private sector.

Lara Boro, (MBA ‘96D) CEO International of British media company Top Right Group, like Zamzam had many female role models during her early childhood in Lebanon, all holding senior positions in government ministries, universities, media and the world of business and all convincing her she could be whatever she wanted. Since moving to Dubai four years ago, Boro has travelled extensively across the Gulf region meeting many “impressive” female leaders in business, government and social services.

“There are more of them every day and the younger women I meet today are just as promising as the women I looked up to growing up,” Boro notes.

Limited Participation

But opportunities and participation is not ubiquitous. Unemployment among women in the region is around 42 percent, according to a United Nations 2012 report which identifies cultural and social impediments, notably family pressure, religious interpretations and inability to travel, as the major impediments to women gaining meaningful employment.

In Saudi Arabia there are practical issues. Women are forbidden to drive a car or to start a business or travel abroad without a guardian’s consent. In contrast, the governments in the UAE and Qatar have identified women as vital to the country’s economic development and are encouraging their participation, expanding childcare facilities and introducing family friendly business practices.

Programs like the Arab Women Leadership Forum, have been set up by women to network and develop professional skills and leadership capabilities. In December last year, the UAE made it compulsory for all corporations and government agencies to include women on their board of directors.

Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum enforced this pro-women stance during a federal government summit in February, cautioning the country’s male population they would have to pick up their act if they didn’t want to lose their position to their female colleagues.

“If you visit my office, 85 percent of [staff there] are women,” he warned. It’s support like this, says Zamzam, which has made the country a model for others in the region. “I started at Masdar right after I graduated from the marketing course at the University of Sharjah and I worked my way up to senior analyst.”

“[Attaining] an MBA from a top school has always been a goal of mine,” she notes. “I come from a very education-driven family… my parents have always been 100 percent supportive of [my brother’s and my] career and educational choices.”

Zamzam says she chose INSEAD because of the reaction she received whenever she asked anyone about the program. “They all kind of had the same response which was: ‘It was the best year of my life!’ That response and the fact that it is a 10-month program means that I get to go back to the UAE and take part in its development.”

The first six months studying an MBA has given Zamzam a sense of where she wants her career to head. “I have a really strong passion for women’s empowerment, specifically through knowledge and building businesses. I have a passion for social entrepreneurship and for promoting new innovative sustainable business ideas. “With the knowledge I’m getting here and the skills I’m getting, the support from my friends and family and just with all the passion and drive that I have, I don’t feel there are many obstacles that will hinder my progress.”

Like the Abaya, Women Are Developing

“I‘m quite representative of the new generation of Emirati women,” she adds. “We’re very focused on career and at the same time we’re very cultural in the sense that we still value all of the things that our mothers and grandmothers have instilled in us.”

And, while she still wears the abaya and shayla (robe and head scarf) when in the UAE, Zamzam says that even this has changed.

“In the last eight or nine years, it’s gone from being a traditional black abaya to something that looks like a beautiful gown, it keeps developing just as women are developing.”

*[This article was republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright: INSEAD 2013]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright ©    Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

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