Thursday, 23 November 2017 10:29

Inspiring Saudi women into leadership roles

We have recently launched our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women, based on interviews with extraordinary Saudi females.

Here Dr Taghreed Al-Saraj has allowed us to share her fuller interview. A best-selling author, international educational consultant, women leadership coach and international public speaker, her most recent role is Head of eLearning Content Development at Takamol Holding. She is passionate about helping and inspiring women to take on leadership roles in Saudi Arabia and addressing youth unemployment in the Kingdom

Metin Mitchell (MM): What changes are you seeing in Saudi that are helping women into leadership roles?

Dr Taghreed Al-Saraj (TAS):  Women are not treated equally around the world and inequality looks different in different places.  In the West, a big issue is that women are not paid the same.  In Saudi, equal pay is not our challenge but here we need to empower women more.  We are now seeing a lot of rules and regulations, especially with the 2030 vision, brought in order to support women empowerment and that is really helping to bring change.  This is part of encouraging women to enter the workforce and progress into leadership roles.

When people talk about equality for Saudi women, you would sometimes think the rest of the world has solved this and it is only Saudi that is left to tackle this issue….  My big eye-opener was at a graduation ceremony at the University of California, Berkeley. I was part of the faculty so we were sitting behind the guest speaker at the ceremony, who was the CEO of Salesforce.  In his talk, he said he had found his company didn’t pay men and women equally, so he made the finance department go back to the books and managed to change the salaries to be equal between men and women.  I was watching my colleagues’ faces as well as the students’ faces on the other side of the stage, who clearly understood this as a really big issue, and there was a lot of clapping.  I immediately compared this issue with us in Saudi and realized that it is not an issue for us in Saudi.

Each country has different challenges to address and we are now seeing real change in Saudi, supported by the government and society.

MM: Looking back to obstacles you have faced, how have you got round these?

TAS: We moved a lot when I was a child because of my father’s work in the military. I ended up living in Washington DC, Miami, San Francisco, Toulon (France), and in Pakistan… As a child, I was exposed to so many cultures and you are forced when you move around to change your styles and habits if you want to interact with the locals.  Language was an obstacle of course. When I moved to Washington DC as a child coming from Saudi Arabia, I didn’t speak a word of English and stayed silent in school for three months, I just signed and nodded, until I got the words to articulate my thoughts and the message I wanted to convey.  Language and culture are barriers but I think I was fortunate because I was constantly exposed to different cultures and my ears were exposed to different languages at an early stage of my life which made me the person I am today: full of tolerance and acceptance of others as they are.

As an adult, adapting to new surroundings wasn’t quite as easy as when you are a child. When I moved to the UK as an adult, it was a bit hard at first even though the language was not a barrier. I was so used to the American way and constantly comparing the two cultures and way of doing things. For example the flats (apartments) were tiny and double the price in London, while in Miami (Florida) everything was big and spacious. I am not saying one is better than the other. It’s just the constant comparison that I was switching between that was a bit exhausting. It took me a year to adapt and say: this is it! Either get on board or leave….  When you accept that way of life and culture, you will start to open up and love the city for what it is and what it offers you.  Throughout my life, I had many homes around the world where I was connected to new friends and neighbors I made along the way…. it was a fantastic life journey!

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MM: What was your first big accomplishment in your career?

TAS:  The big one was my PhD. In the British educational system you either pass or fail your viva (PhD final verbal exam), whereas in the Saudi system you go in to the viva and already know more or less that you have passed. The British way is very tough and you can actually fail the viva.  My topic was on anxiety so it was very awkward!  After I passed my viva, I went home walking full of joy that this major journey in my life ended and a new one will start. That day was very memorable for me.  It was the start of a new career after all these years of studying.

MM: How did you find the Kingdom when you came back?

TAS: When I came back to Saudi, change was happening so rapidly. I am really happy to see that we are constantly improving for the better.  When living abroad, I always get asked: Saudi isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world. I always say: come on, we’re a very young country.  In my book, The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman’s story, I mention that Lloyds Bank is older than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!  We’re taking it slow, but nonetheless, we are changing for the better each day. 

MM: Your life as an entrepreneur – to what extent has your own support network made it possible, including your family?

TAS: Networking is very important.  Everywhere you go, networking is your easy marketing tool. You must talk to others and that’s how things get started.

My family is supportive. I am fortunate because I have a wonderful husband who listens and says: here’s my two cents, take it or leave it, it’s up to you.  Also, my mum and sister have always been there as a support too – with recommendations.  In a way, my family acts as my confidante. I trust them completely. They help me to see different angles and perspectives of issues that I might have overlooked. Sometimes you need someone to open your eyes to see an issue from a different angle especially when you are in the middle of things.  I take all what they say on board and go somewhere quiet to think things through and come to a decision.

MM: What advice do you think your husband would give to other Saudi men on helping their wives?

TAS: I am sure he would tell them: don’t tell women what to do!  He knows my personality and if I am forced to do something and don’t have the buy-in it is going to be very hard to do. He tells me to think about it and see it through.  If you always had somebody to tell you what to do, you’re not creative in your solutions because you are just following orders.

MM: What are your thoughts on how to keep men engaged and supportive of women as they go through their particular changes?

TAS: In the Kingdom it is not about how to get the men engaged, it is how to get women engaged.  The men are holding the positions and the women are just creeping up the ladder.  Getting the woman engaged so she can come out of the house, get a job and feel she is contributing to the country’s growth, is what this country needs.

MM: Part of Vision 2030 is to increase women in the workforce.  As a coach, what do you work on to help women reach their goals?

TAS: It is confidence. We need to work on women’s confidence because so often I hear women saying things like ‘What value do I bring?’ or ‘I’m not worthy’. That kills me because everybody adds value to everything.  When I read “Lean In” it was strange to see that the Western culture was the same.  I think we should call the book “Squeeze In” because we’ve really got to work on getting women voices heard and not sitting on the sidelines. 

When I am coaching someone, I start with where the lack of confidence has come from and how it is affecting them. If someone feels they don’t have enough knowledge, then maybe they need to go on a course or do more reading so they feel they know enough about the subject to talk confidently.  It could be someone doesn’t like speaking up in meetings, in which case we look at their personality traits and confidence as to why they do what they are doing.

There is always a way to build confidence.  I want women to understand that your voice matters, your opinions count and we would love to hear them. 

MM: If you are addressing women in a speech, what do you want them to take away?

TAS: Never give up!  You never know what will happen if you don’t try. Sometimes you need to take risks.  Fight for what you believe in.  We need women in leadership roles and this means stepping out of our comfort zones. This is the same for women in the West as much as in Saudi.

If at work you need to change something, make a case for it. Don’t just be emotional and say ‘we need to do this or that’, but build a proper case with research, facts and figures. Then present it in a logical way. It is very persuasive and has helped me achieve several changes at work.

I learned from changing from academia to business many things, and that by itself is a big change.  You should have an open mind and keep learning at every stage of your life.  You can learn from anybody, anywhere and on any day. We should never sit back and think you know it all – there is always more to learn.

MM: What is next for you?

TAS: I have been back in Saudi a year and three months.  So far I am producing online courses to help our youth to get jobs and then keep those jobs.  This initiative is funded by the government. We have online courses that address for example time management, leadership skills, team working, management skills – the things that you don’t get taught at school or college but are essential to getting a job.

Helping tackle youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest challenges for our country and I feel very blessed to play a small part of it in any way I can!

Published in Saudi business leaders
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 16:46

Women are Saudi’s secret weapon

Metin Mitchell interview with Dubai Eye on Roads to the Top for Saudi Women

Metin Mitchell was interviewed by Dubai Eye radio last month, about the role of women for the future of the Gulf region.

It was based on Metin Mitchell & Co’s report ‘Roads to the top for Saudi Women from interviews with Saudi female leaders who shared their insights and expertise to help future female leaders.

Metin Mitchell’s inspiration for the report came from his own mother and a female colleague, Ruth Tait (sadly passed away) who was a researcher and author on women’s leadership – the title of the report borrows from her writing. 

This is the transcript of the Dubai Eye interview, with the breakfast team.

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Q:        How positive are Saudi women about the prospects for their working lives?

A:         They are very positive. One of the things that came out is how supportive they felt their families were and their country is of them.

Q:        How do you work this out? Working life for women in Saudi Arabia is difficult, you can’t travel by yourself, you can’t get around without a guardian... It is not the most obvious place for women to be happy in employment?

A:         Those are the headlines people focus on. What people don’t focus on is what women have to say for themselves and what they find is that things are changing very very quickly, that there are opportunities for them they would not have had before.

Q:        How did you do this research? Obviously you can go to an office and talk to women. But it is harder to find the ones who are not working? How did you carry this survey out?

A:         We interviewed a cross section of women from different sectors, banking, public sector, government etc and they were able to share their views.

Q:        So these are women who have already got jobs?

A:         Yes these are people who have got jobs but who are informed about their own society. These are people who have perspectives on what is going on around them.

Q:        So what was the headline finding?

A:         Saudi Arabia has ambitious goals and is going to make this happen.

Q:        Ambitions in what sense? In bringing women into every sphere, every line of work, every profession?

A:         Right now there are 22% of women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia. The first goal in the next three to four years is to get that up to 30%.

Q:        Does that mean that 22% of the workforce are women or 22% of women work?

A:         22% of the workforce are women.

Q:        We heard this morning that Saudi Air Navigation Services are set out to employ women as air traffic controllers for the first time. The Saudi Academy is going to train them in line with vision 2030 so this is another field open to them. If 22% of women are working what is Saudi Arabia aiming for to get into the workforce?

A:         By 2030 it will aim for something around 40% which is slightly below the global norm but in line with their own aspirations as a society.

Q:        Where do you see the most opportunities, in which sectors?

A:         Financial services is a big opportunity and I also think some more progressive conglomerates like the Olayan family conglomerate.

Q:        What training opportunities are available? Are there enough training opportunities?

A:         Saudi Arabia has big resources devoted towards training so I don’t think training resources are the issue but the willingness of companies to make it a priority, then you will see the changes happening.

Q:        Which is another great question. Are employers taking Saudi women seriously enough?

A:         Some are ... for example GE is doing a fantastic job in Saudi Arabia as is Tata Consulting.

Q:        The last time I was in Saudi Arabia I went to a bank. There were women working in the bank but they had to be on a different floor. Obviously for smaller companies it is quite hard to bring single digits of women in the workforce to start the whole thing rolling if you have to have different floors, totally different offices to put them in. I suspect people listening to this think: well women can’t get around freely, they don’t have the ability to drive at the moment. They get around with a chauffeur or with a guardian. How much does that limit this move to 40% of the workforce by 2030? Will that need to change to achieve that 40% you think?

A:         What needs to change is attitude towards childcare so I think the progressive employers will be the ones who win in the workplace they are those who can provide childcare on site and allow for flexible working for the women.

Q:        Which is one of the things you asked the women that you have surveyed, what needs to change. Childcare is one of the things they spoke about. They spoke about flexible working hours. They also spoke about mentoring?

A:         Mentors can be men or women but the role of mentors is absolutely critical. Someone you can turn to for advice and counsel and how to build a career.

Q:        Tell me about employment numbers. They don’t seem to bear reality to the total population. I wonder how many women are factored into these numbers. Do you know how this works?

A:         Jobless numbers are complicated for Saudi Arabia and there are very wide ranging thoughts for what employment is. One of the complications is how do you calculate the population of Saudi Arabia? There are probably three to four million ex-patriates. They haven’t done the best job they could yet to calculate these numbers. There is room for improvement there.

Q:        It is very well moving from 22% to 40% over the next 12 years or so but at the moment we just don’t understand how many people are actually sitting in Saudi Arabia who would like to have a job but don’t have a job?

A:         I can’t answer that but what I can say is that I am seeing more women coming into the workforce, when you look at companies like Tata or GE, Olayan or some of the banks. They are recruiting every year more and more women. And in fact the women are their secret weapon because it is the women who are actually going to improve the performance of men because these women really want to succeed and they are going to outshine and outperform their male competition. Saudi Arabia desperately needs to improve its performance and women are the way that this is going to happen.

Q:        Talk to me about women moving up the chain. Jobs are one thing but what about management?

A:         You need to have companies which are progressive about assessing talent which gives them a chance. Women also have to fight. They have to be very clear what it is they want to achieve and push and push and push. They will get there. There are plenty of examples, they have role models now which they didn’t have 10 years ago, so they can do it!

More women in middle management will come by more women studying STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Q:        Are women factored into the Nitaqat system?

A:         Disabled people are factored into this and given more credits if you want. Women to my acknowledgement are not yet.

Q:        Women are a vital asset to Saudi Arabia. What is being done to change things?

A:         Social media is changing everything, attitudes are changing. There are no barriers for them to be successful anymore. The Mutawa is an irrelevance. The only limitations are women themselves. They can make it happen. What we need to be doing is to celebrate each other’s successes and pushing for themselves in the organisation in which they work. That is what starts to make the difference and I think ultimately what really makes a difference is their performance. They will outperform the men. The ones that I am seeing right now are outperforming the men hands down. That’s what will make the difference and make the change.

Published in Saudi business leaders

Saudi Vision 2030 commits the Kingdom to increase the number of women in the workforce to 30 per cent.  The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is clear on his goals, saying, “My first objective is for our country to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence, on all fronts, and I will work...to achieve that.”

How can corporates contribute?

mm report saudi women final cover

I’ve spoken with a number of Saudi women in senior positions within the Kingdom about their views for our report, Roads to the top for Saudi Women. They have important insights to share about how businesses can recruit, support and promote women within the workforce.

The effect of Saudization

The requirement for companies and organizations to employ local Saudi people has forced many employers to rethink their hiring policies. One woman I spoke to was clear that this has forced companies to rethink how they recruit. She said, “Companies could not figure out how to get enough men, so they hired women in junior and back-office positions because they had to deliver Saudization – and then realized the women are doing very well and better than Saudi men in many cases.”

The challenge for employers now is to make sure they are using this fantastic female talent properly – are there plans in place to promote great women and what are the barriers that need to be tackled? It is important that female talent is not wasted and that women are seen as leadership candidates across the whole business.

What does “best practice” look like?

olyan

The Pearl Initiative’s report of 2016 cites Olayan, Pepsico, GE and Petroleum Development Oman as examples of companies that are “getting it right”.

Others believe global companies are not doing enough in Saudi, “I think this is to do with the fear of the unknown,” said one of the women I interviewed. “They have corporate governance standards for other countries – why not apply these in Saudi?” she added.

Looking at two examples of best practice – GE Saudi Arabia and The Olayan Group, what are they doing and how can other employers emulate this?

GE Saudi Arabia hired their first woman in 2009. By 2016 this had risen to 100 Saudi women working at their local HQ, factory and field roles. GE is clear that practical issues such as separate office space or transportation “were all easily solved”. Nabil Habayeb, President and CEO of GE Middle East, has talked about the company’s efforts to increase the number of women, saying, “GE’s efforts to instil an inclusive and supportive culture, to hire the right people and enable them to achieve success for themselves and the business have proven to work well for women’s careers.”

They organized professional development training for women to address specific needs, such as networking practice, and women at GE are encouraged to apply for all roles with the company. They have made a particular effort to encourage female applicants for positions not previously deemed appropriate for women.

The Olayan Group, one of the few large private enterprises in the Kingdom led by a woman, has also put much effort into increasing the number of women it employs. Lubna S Olayan said, “My vision is a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified.”

Like GE, Olayan has introduced HR policies that support women in the workplace such as policies on harassment, inclusiveness and daycare. They also monitor women’s progress and actively ensure that qualified women move up the pipeline.

This positive approach echoes the view of Hala Kudwah of PriceWaterhouseCoopers when I spoke to her, “Women need to be empowered. This will come through infrastructure and HR policies.” She said, adding, “For example, we need daycare facilities at centers where they can entrust children. We need training and development paths for women.”

A striking approach from GE in partnership with Tata Consultancy Services is the creation of an all-women business and IT services center in Riyadh, supporting 55 countries. In two years, the firm hired more than 1,000 women and plans to employ 3,000 by 2020. All women have a bachelor’s degree and are fluent in English. This is an innovative approach that shows that rapidly increasing women’s employment is possible.

 Middle management is key for Saudi female progression

The biggest opportunity and challenge for the Kingdom now is increasing the number of women into middle management roles and from there, there will be a pool of candidates to step into leadership positions. In more than 20 years of executive search in the Middle East, I have seen time and again that it is the female candidates who are outstanding on shortlists.  There is no shortage of female talent, now the challenge is to help them move into middle management. In an earlier blog, I covered the four areas that I think will make a significant difference – flexible working patterns, quality childcare, mentoring new recruits and hiring for talent, not experience. Read the blog to see more detail on these.

What other ways can employers help Saudi women in the workplace? Please share your stories and examples of great practice in Saudi Arabia or other countries that we can all learn from.

Published in Saudi business leaders
Monday, 09 October 2017 12:48

Making sense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Women driving, a street party in Riyadh’s main drag Tahlia Street, new forms of taxation and a relentless push towards modernisation and diversification of the economy are leaving external observers of Saudi Arabia as breathless as those trying to make sense of President Trump’s daily flurry of tweets.  

The reality is that the Kingdom is in a race against the clock to preserve its very existence.

The usual platitude of “tell me where the price of oil is going and I will tell you where the Saudi economy is going” gives a terrible forecast, which most people using this blithe statement have not grasped: unless the government and people of Saudi Arabia can make a success of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ plan – better known as Vision 2030 – we are facing the collapse of the Kingdom. The stark truth is that with current oil prices and oil price trends, the economy of the Kingdom is unsustainable.

For the last two decades I have been travelling to Saudi Arabia and there has been a comforting premise for the population that the country had hundreds of years’ worth of oil – and indeed it may do. The problem of course is that the world is going electric and the power it needs will come from nuclear, renewables and, in the case of North America, from domestic carbon sources.  That the world is going electric is challenge enough for the giants of the automotive industry as they face competition from Tesla, Dyson and Google.  But for the Saudis, as they are presently configured, it is a disaster.  

saudi oil wells

Give or take, the Saudi Government has needed oil to be at 80 dollars a barrel to break even – at 50 dollars a barrel and with an incredibly costly) war  against Yemen, this largely undiversified economy is under severe threat.  

To make matters worse, the country has a fast growing population with almost 45% under the age of 25. All these young people need jobs and with the economy growing at 0.1% it seems that unemployment currently pegged at anywhere between 11% and 25%, will get significantly worse.  

480px Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud2

If this picture seems bleak, there is hope. The Royal Family has made the very bold move of preparing the way for a young king. When his father passes on the reins to him, Mohamed Bin Salman will have the possibility of a long reign ahead and the chance of actually pushing forward the reforms the country needs.  Many of the issues facing the country – inclusion of women, entrepreneurship and diversification – are dealt with in the 2030 plan.  But these will bring disruptive and at times painful changes to society.

Saudi Arabia will need all its cohesiveness to weather these.  Very sensibly, by addressing the bug bears of the young – restrictive societal practices and the ban on women driving – the government is creating palpable levels of goodwill and social unity in this critical demographic group.  I assume that a calculation has been made that by winning over the young of the Kingdom there will be an overwhelming counterbalance to the conservative elements of Saudi Arabia who have, for so long, resisted change.  

My guess is that the Kingdom will make it. What is not always obvious to those in the West who, to my mind, are too quick to criticize Saudi Arabia is that the Kingdom, as a country and as a people, has a lot going for it.  Most notably, over and above oil it has considerable mineral wealth and the possibility to generate vast solar energy. 

But most misunderstood are the considerable talents of its people – women and men. Once their energy is harnessed, their skills developed and their economic framework liberalized, the prospects for the Kingdom actually look bright.  

But the government will need to keep firm on its plans.

Published in Leadership

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women are often held back in the workplace. Ms Sandberg’s words come from her experience in the USA, but they are just as applicable in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As the Kingdom works to boost the number of women in the workforce, I interviewed a group of successful Saudi women for our report Roads to the top for Saudi Women. They talked about their own experiences and what had worked well.

CEW

A lack of women at the top is not a feature unique to KSA or Gulf states. The organisation Chief Executive Women published figures showing that only 30 per cent of executives at ASX200 companies are women and just seven per cent of FTSE 100 companies are led by women. Under-representation is a global problem. However, Saudi Vision 2030 gives us a measurable goal to aim towards.

What advice did the women we spoke to have for women looking to “lean in” and help their fellow ladies rise through the ranks?

1.      Support each other

Many of the women we spoke to talked about the responsibility they felt to pass on their success and encourage and support other women in the workplace – by backing other women, making sure they are properly heard and creating new opportunities for women in business and the public sector.

Organizations can create women-only spaces that allow more women to contribute. Amal Fatani, who wrote a blog for us with more detailed thoughts, headed a project to expand the women’s sections at the Ministry of Higher Education - from 20 ladies to 334. If possibilities for women do not exist, they cannot flourish so Amal’s example is important. Everyone should ask themselves “what am I doing to create more opportunities for women”.  

amplify

One woman talked about the example of the Obama administration, where women came up with a strategy to amplify their voice. When one woman made a comment or opinion, another woman would take that up and repeat the same point a few minutes later to make sure it was heard. Amplifying each other’s voices can be this simple – just reiterating what somebody else said in a meeting can have a powerful impact.

We all need to ask ourselves – “what am I doing to create new opportunities for women and how am I making sure that they are properly heard?”

2.      Look at the role models around you, and make sure you are a role model to others

Princess Banderi, was very clear about the effect that role models have had on her career aspirations, saying, “In my family, my mother is one of the strongest women I know. For her everything is possible, there is always a way to get to what you want or do what you want.”

There is no doubt that female members of the royal family have had a powerful influence as role models for women in the Kingdom. Queen Effat was mentioned numerous times, with one woman commenting, “When princesses started working, they broke a taboo. Families used to be reluctant to allow a woman to work because it looked as if they could not afford to live without her income. The princesses showed that work for women is as much about self-realisation.”

Strong role models are essential - to set an example for young men and women and to encourage daughters to think of more than just marriage. As one said, “Our vision is to have more women leaders to be role models. This will encourage more women into middle management and the top jobs.”

3.      The importance of finding and being a mentor

Many of the women we spoke to also talked about their experiences as either a mentor or a mentee, and why finding a mentor can be valuable.

One woman spoke of the guidance she received and how it helped her to reflect. She said, “I had a mentor… all along in my career in banking.  After he left banking, he told me my hard work and perseverance had got me where I was, but I needed to develop more skills, different skills to get to where I wanted to be. He said: stop shooting people between the eyes.  I am very direct, and I know what he means.”

Another talked about passing on advice and guidance to younger women, saying, “I think we lose track of how much we can do regarding mentoring. I believe that what younger women can benefit from is this kind of mentoring – speaking up and not being apologetic about what they ask for, about their rights and being more confident about their contribution.”

For women who struggle to find someone within their organisation, the Hadafi Women Entrepreneurship Program operates across the Middle East and provides mentors for female entrepreneurs. Other avenues are peer groups like the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce – which has a specific “Business Women” group to support women in their ambitions.

What next?

Women in Saudi Arabia are an essential part of the Kingdom’s future prosperity and achieving its Vision 2030 goals. This is recognized by the government and increasingly by employers as well.

Women can help shape their own future success. Supporting each other by creating new opportunities for other women and making sure female voices are heard are the foundations of shared success. Setting an example for the next generation as role models and working with mentors so that women continue to take up senior positions are key strategies.

Are there other systems that have been successful in encouraging Saudi women to “reach for the top”? Or businesses who are leading the way on female employment? Share your examples in the comments.

Published in Feminisation

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