Attitudes about women in workplace have 'radically evolved'

May Nasrallah, the founder of an advisory company for small-to-medium-sized businesses, says women often have a more detailed vision of their goals and are less impulsive.

May Nasrallah, the founder and CEO of deNovo Corporate Advisors. Pawan Singh / The National
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When May Nasrallah was asked to establish Morgan Stanley's first office in the Middle East, she accepted the position with a degree of apprehension.

This fear had nothing to do with her abilities.

Quite the contrary, the MIT graduate was a rising star in the investment-banking world. From New York, to Hong Kong, to London, her concern in coming to Dubai was far more basic - she was a woman.

"When I was growing up in Kuwait, I used to feel sorry for my friends whose mothers had to work," says Mrs Nasrallah, who moved to the GCC from Lebanon when war broke out in the 1980s.

"I felt sorry for them that they didn't have money to support themselves. This part of the world, historically, hasn't encouraged women to be at the forefront in the workplace. But this perspective regarding women and in the working world has radically evolved."

Despite this childhood experience, Mrs Nasrallah successfully opened Morgan Stanley's Dubai office in early 2006. In fact, she says Dubai, and the UAE at large, proved to be particularly enlightened and welcoming to women in the corporate arena. Focusing on mergers, acquisitions and project finance, the move, she adds, was fulfilling in more ways than one.

"It was a homecoming, so to speak," she says. "I had been lucky to contribute to development and strategic initiatives in many countries in the world, but never in my part of the world. It was great to be part of seeing Dubai blossom. I enjoyed watching that become a reality."

In late 2009, Mrs Nasrallah, after 16 years with the firm, decided to switch gears and launch her own company - deNovo, an advisory company dedicated to helping small-to-medium-sized businesses take corporate interests to the next level.

The idea, she says, was inspired by her desire to work with a more modest cross-section of clients. But whether she is working with small businesses or major government entities, Mrs Nasrallah says women are still under-represented in the investment and corporate world.

"I haven't had the pleasure of too many female clients at this stage, and I look forward to that," she says. "But those I have interacted with, I find women in general a bit more detailed and thoughtful in terms of what they want to do."

In general terms, she adds that, in the financial industry, women are less impulsive than their male counterparts. They are more rigorous in their approach and are often keen to double and triple check decisions.

One of the reasons there are so few women in the upper echelons of the investment universe, she says, is because of the challenges faced by those who choose to have families. As the mother of three young boys, Mrs Nasrallah understands the pressures of balancing home life with the intense pressures that come with a high-powered career.

Women, she adds, sometimes opt out of the corporate life because these diverse responsibilities prove too much to bear.

"Male counterparts don't think in the same way," she says. "It's tough at best. You have to fight harder and prove yourself more."

Mrs Nasrallah believes those aspiring to be the leaders of tomorrow must hang in there and keep their heads down. But at the same time, they shouldn't be afraid to speak their minds. Those who make it to the top, she adds, didn't get there without sacrifice.