Do multiple responsibilities and biological factors impinge on women’s quest for personal and professional success? OER throws open the debate.
Lubna Al Kharusi
Chief Financial Officer, Omran
Natasha Yahya Mohammed Nasib
Director and Chief Operating Officer, Yahya Group Holding
Shatha Al Maskiry
Country Managing Director, Protiviti Oman & Regional Managing Director, Human Capital Consulting
Executive Manager, Communications and Sustainability, Electricity Holding Group
Pepisco CEO, Indra Nooyi touched upon the provocative work-life balance debate at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2014, telling the audience that, “Women can’t have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all.” The statement sparked off a renewed debate on whether women can juggle their professional and personal commitments without trade off, guilt and heartburn. We threw open the debate to a cross-section of successful women in Oman. Excerpts from their views:
Last year, Ursula Burns [Chairman and CEO at Xerox] mentioned something that she called the “impostor syndrome”. She said that it’s a bit inaccurate to say that I can have it all and now Indra Nooyi has echoed the same sentiments. What are your thoughts on the issue?.
Natasha: I am blessed to be a mother of three, and being a wife and mother will always take precedence in my life, as it should for all parents. Even though my family comes first, this does not mean I cannot also be a successful and productive businesswoman. I have felt the challenges of trying to balance and juggle my personal and professional lives. The key is prioritising and realising that you cannot do it all; sometimes one thing or the other will have to wait. I was brought up to dream big and thankfully have been lucky to reach to places I never imagined, but it did not come without some sacrifices in work, social life and even family time. I agree, “I cannot have it all,” but I think women should strive to accept the challenges, take each day as it comes and set high but achievable goals for themselves.
Ghada: It is important to devote a certain number of hours to your family’s commitments as it keeps you sane. One may not be in a position to strike a perfect balance between the time devoted to work and at home, but that is not important. Personally, I feel that looking after children is not just something to do with women only; but it’s a family affair, especially in Oman, with the extended family getting involved in the process and contributing to their well-being. Arab women are blessed with a robust family structure, where they get a lot of support. In this day and age, it is not fair to differentiate on the basis of gender; at the end of the day, we are all individuals, who have responsibilities at home and at work. Whether you are male or female, it all depends on your career priorities and state of mind. This was relevant in the 1950s when women were coming into the workforce, as there was a cultural shift, but today it is pretty much accepted. So seeing things through a gender prism is not fair.
Lubna: It is about the way you judge or perceive your success or purpose. My purpose is not to be a CFO, or to be on the board of Dar Al Atta’a. My purpose is to share love, with my community and fellow humans and to enable the growth and expansion of love. My job and everything I do are vehicles to achieve that. As far as my children are concerned, I want them to have a role model. Everything that I do is about whether I can create an expansion in the place that I am at. So success is personal, and it depends on what you define as success. The values that I want to instill in my children are not about whether I am there all the time or whether I am there every morning to drop them to school, but making sure that they know that they are loved and making sure that they love others. My frame of reference is different about ‘can I have it all.’ If I can say that ‘I love where I live, I love what I do, and love those that surround me,’ then that is great and enough for me.
Shatha: My mother was a government employee and an entrepreneur. Yet, she managed impeccably to raise my brothers and myself. Of course, she was hardest on me; I did not quite understand it until she had a hard talk with me once when she said that my only weapon in life is my education. To compliment her role, my father and my brothers supported my decisions so I never grew up with any gender differences to feel that it would be tougher as a woman. However, to be fair, as women, some of us need to prove and sacrifice more but circumstances differ so we cannot really generalise here. Before joining Protiviti, I worked in the US where I was mentored and coached by female partners and despite being an Arab woman in the West, the men at work really supported my growth. Can women have it all? We really cannot generalise because it boils down to the individual and what she is passionate about.
If someone was in their late 20s, and going from a junior level to mid-level, one differentiator would be the volume of work he or she does. Is work-life balance really an option for somebody at that stage?
Natasha: When a junior employee has the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder, work and life balance is always an issue. It is a challenge to juggle the two. While accepting a new challenge, one needs to make sacrifices. My suggestion is that these sacrifices should first come from one’s social life before one’s family life. When a new opportunity presents itself, the working woman needs to explain to her family that sacrifices will have to be made. The family needs to understand that it is for the betterment of the whole family and that they need to help in their individual ways. Sometimes, there is little choice. Life and work will not be equal but as I stated before, the key is prioritising along with family cooperation.
Ghada: At that stage, there are two things that come into play – flexibility and efficiency. You need to find a way to work in an efficient way. There is absolutely no reason why a nine to five person will do any less work than a nine to nine person. It is all about managing your time properly. There will be days when you feel completely fulfilled for achieving everything on the check list and days when you need to stop and start again tomorrow. Women can carry their work home or work from home, because it is not fair for a women to be physically at the work place and be mentally somewhere else.
Lubna: People believe that others have control over their lives. To me, you have control over your life, and what you project in your thoughts and prayers is what is answered. If you think of money as an example, no one thinks that the air that we breathe will run out. It is the same with money. If you believe that there will be enough money for your needs then it will be there, and if you believe it will be limited, it will be limited. We should not take this role of manipulating life to get the outcome that we want, because there is a divine orchestration that allows that to happen perfectly. What is important is that within yourself you need to be clear about what makes you happy and what does not make you happy. Usually, the thing that makes you happy is the thing that is good for you and the thing that makes you unhappy is the thing that is bad for you. And that is my barometer. It is also important to stay and work in an environment which suits one’s needs, but if you trust your inner guidance, things tend to work out.
Shatha: I have seen all sorts of women at work and I can safely say that they have more control over their careers than they think. I have seen women who have taken their maternity leave and are back to work the next day, while others took a year or more out. My mom took four years out to look after my brother and myself before going back to work, but that did not regress her at all. It is all about the individual. As for the pay variance between men and women, it should be based on the role one plays. But unfortunately, it is a factor of psychological conditioning because it is expected that women will be out of the job cycle. Let us be fair though, men would not be here if it was not for women. So pay should be based on what an individual delivers instead of involuntarily discounting the remuneration of the gender who procreates.
What should companies/government in Oman do to foster women in leadership roles, as this seems to be the critical point of discussion these days?
Natasha: Private companies, in general, care for their employees. Most companies realise that their employees are the backbone of the company and they should be respected. Therefore keeping their employees happy is a prerequisite. There are several things companies can do to encourage women to advance. Education is number one; sending women to workshops and conferences can be beneficial. Helping them realise their objectives by subsidising their formal education is another. Also, women need to be mentored in leadership roles. This would benefit the company as well as the employee.
Ghada: The UAE has for example made it mandatory for corporations and government organisations to have women members on their board. In Oman, the way the law is structured is very supportive of women. I have never experienced a glass ceiling. I grew up looking up to the likes of Hind Bahwan, Lujaina Darwish and a number of other successful women. They are known names and are still around. Oman has had the first women minister, the first ambassador. Therefore, the enabling environment is there.
Lubna: On a policy basis the enablers for women to succeed may not all be there, but on a human basis there is. What is important is building trust on a human to human relationship between an employee and the supervisor. Trust shouldn’t be abused, but if you deliver quality work on time and have a positive attitude, then people would be ready to compromise for helping you and would have more compassion for you. In terms of policy, I think the maternity leave needs to be extended from the current 40 days as it is not enough. In Canada and the UK, women get six months of paid-leave subsidised by the government and up to one year where you can choose to be unpaid, but your position remains. Policies are there to enable society to reach a certain goal and that understanding is important for a country to reach its potential. As a community, we need to recognise both the importance of a mother and the importance of the contribution women can make to the growth of a nation. By ignoring either role the society will lose out.
Shatha: At Protiviti, we are very considerate offering flexible hours, working from home and extended leave without pay after delivery. We have given women leave without pay for up to 12 months, but there is a fine line when mutual ethical decisions need to be made to ensure business is not disrupted with extended absence. If woman plays an active role that requires client interface, then women also need to be reasonable with their requests. We have accommodated high performing women to attend meetings, take the work home to prepare reports and email them back to the team. The objective of such privileges is to support women to balance between raising their kids and achieving their career aspirations.
When you look at Oman do you think that women have made a significant contribution to the development of the Sultanate?
Lubna: Yes I think so, and there is a large scope for growth. It is said that humans use ten per cent of their brains, so we need to start using more of our cerebral capacity. Secondly, if half of the population is not being properly utilised, then we are not reaching the potential that we can reach. Whether it is Oman or any other country, it is the individual’s willingness to participate and the belief that they can participate in the growth and development process that makes a difference. What is interesting, and what I have seen a lot, is that the obstacles are not in terms of whether a women can be promoted, or whether they can attend certain meetings etc, the obstacles are mostly in their minds. Women need to believe that what they say and do is important, and that they can make a difference. But if you are not confident and do not accept external blurrings, then it limits you.