If governments and companies in the GCC can create an institutional environment in which women can reach their full potential, as well as find the right combination of incentives and policies to keep individual women engaged, the region might provide a powerful example to the rest of the world — hence the importance of the example set by the women who are playing active roles in business and government in the GCC today. Few outside the region are familiar with the remarkable advances these countries have made in just a generation. It is a difficult evolution to quantify, because little comprehensive data is available at the regional level concerning the roles women have taken on. Within the GCC, however, women’s increasing participation at all levels of the workforce is widely recognized — and more and more celebrated. As government ministers, CEOs, and regulators, women are playing a crucial role in driving these countries’ economic and social development, and opening the door for other women who hope to do the same.
We interviewed a representative sample of eight women in senior positions in the public and private sectors in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — exploring their career paths, their motivations, and their recommendations for creating the institutions that will allow more women to succeed. The stories of these highly visible women provide insight into the needs and aspirations of the far larger group of women who will have a significant impact on the GCC’s workforce in the years to come.
An article published last year, “Measures of Leadership” (by Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, s+b, Summer 2010), took a similar approach in providing an overview of the qualities critical for successful leaders in the GCC. Our intent is not to suggest that women leaders are a separate breed: Indeed, the women interviewed for this article exhibit all the traits outlined in “Measures of Leadership.” But women who achieve success in a traditionally male-dominated culture also have other qualities in common — qualities of particular importance for the young women of the GCC who will lead the next generation. Specifically, although their backgrounds and career paths vary, the women who are breaking boundaries in the GCC all share three things.
Constant improvement. A refusal to accept the status quo, in themselves, their organization, or their region. This manifests itself in unending evaluation and improvement.
Studied discomfort. A willingness to go outside their comfort zone, professionally and personally, particularly when taking on new challenges that would benefit their organization.
Quiet confidence. A certainty in their own abilities and a recognition that when they are inevitably called upon to substantiate the value of their work, they will be prepared.
By cultivating these qualities in younger women, and creating an environment in which they can display them, today’s leaders can encourage a new generation to be ready to take their place.
The women making strides in the Gulf states today are emblematic of the countries themselves, which could easily have spent the next several decades allowing their oil revenues to propel their development. Instead, these countries are stretching themselves to build knowledge economies. Similarly, women leaders are constantly questioning their society’s expectations of them and pushing themselves to achieve more, personally and professionally, than many people expected.
Sheikha Hanadi Al Thani recalls that when she attended high school, few people believed academics would matter much for her or her classmates, because most of them would marry within a few years and then stay home. “This was the expectation from everyone around me,” Al Thani says. “But if you only believe what others see in you, then you might as well just lie back and play dead.”