Passivity at work holding back women in the UAE

PR chief's study on raising the profile of female leaders in the UAE highlights women's fears over appearing too aggressive or self-important in the workplace.

Victoria Tomlinson, chief executive of Northern Lights PR, conducted an enlightening report on what senior Emirati business women feel that they would need to enhance their careers. Ravindranath K / The National
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Victoria Tomlinson has spent the past two years evaluating what women in the UAE require to help them step into the spotlight and shine.

After speaking to about 1,000 women, the chief executive of Northern Lights PR says the overriding message from her report, Women Leaders – Stepping out of the Shadows, is that women want to make more of an impact at work. But while they want a presence in meetings, they do not want to be considered too aggressive or self-important.

“There were comments like: “I don’t feel I can stand up in front of people and get my message across,” says Ms Tomlinson, who released the study in June. “As a result, they tended to stay quiet in meetings. No one got to know them or their expertise and they felt frustrated that they were being overlooked for promotions, speaking opportunities or board appointments.”

Ms Tomlinson, who operates her business in her native England as well as in Abu Dhabi, says her interest in UAE women started in 2013 after she was selected by the BBC in the UK to be trained as one of their “expert women”, to comment on TV, radio and online about social media and business.

“This was in response to criticism that the media is dominated by men,” she says. “At the time, we had started doing business in the UAE and a number of people said: ‘We need that here – we need to raise the profile of women in the UAE.’ We were looking at working with the media and encouraging women to put themselves forward.”

Ms Tomlinson was later introduced to Lubna Qassim, the vice president, group general counsel and company secretary of Emirates NBD. Ms Qassim was an early supporter of Ms Tomnlinson and her plans to structure a personal branding programme for Emirati females.

"Too many women do a great job and expect others to know and appreciate them. That is not the way it goes," says Ms Qassim, who later invited Ms Tomlinson to present her findings at a private lunch she hosted for more than 60 of the UAE's most-senior women. "Sheikh Mohammed has decreed that he wants to see a woman on every board, so the willingness is there from the top. The issue is how we make it happen."

To compile the study, Ms Tomlinson exchanged ideas with UAE female leaders via events she was invited to speak at for organisations such as the Emirati female leadership platform Qiyadiyat, HSBC’s Women’s Forum in Dubai and the International Business Women’s Group. She also spoke to supporters of female talent at banks and oil and gas companies and business organisations.

While 40 per cent of the respondents were Emirati and 60 per cent expats, the research revealed they all share similar issues and anxieties

“This surprised many people who expected Emirati women to be far more modest,” says Ms Tomlinson. “Actually, women generally are modest and that is one of the issues I am trying to tackle,” she adds.

“Women worry about being seen as boastful if they position themselves professionally, and there tis a tendency that if they are doing a great job they expect others to know this without explaining it. I am trying to help women to be very clear and confident about their expertise, and the value that they bring to an organisation.”

When it comes to raising their profile, Ms Tomlinson says many senior women do not know how to secure speaking opportunities or underestimate the effect of LinkedIn.

“I was giving a talk last week to 50 female directors in hospitality and leisure. I gave them quite a hard time about their LinkedIn profiles. I said ‘not a single one of you in this room stands out’. LinkedIn is the world’s most powerful business search engine. If you want somebody to be found – for board appointments, speaking and career opportunities, and to be recognised as the go-to person, LinkedIn is the first port of call.”

The PR chief has written a number of e-books on social media – How to Write a Top-ranked Business Blog was published in 2013 and is an Amazon bestseller – and says it is an area least understood and with the most opportunity for women.

“We found women putting pictures of their children on Twitter or Instagram, having chatty conversations about meeting for lunch, or sharing amusing viral videos,” says Ms Tomlinson. “Very often, it was a case of not knowing where to start. And almost no one had thought of social media as a search engine.”

Another popular theme she found among Emirati leaders was wanting to help one another. “Many admitted they could not negotiate for themselves, but could happily and successfully do this for female colleagues. There is recognition that women need to support each other,” she says, adding that some of the most ambitious women she spoke to were Emirati.

“Often, these women haven’t even told their husbands how ambitious they are, because they haven’t yet shaped in their own minds what they are trying to do. A lot of what I am doing is helping them with storytelling, which is brilliant because this is the culture of storytelling.”

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