Mariam Al Hendi does not believe in sugar-coating the truth and has earned a name for challenging the norm.
The senior mechanical engineer at Gasco, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, said it is not just about opening the door for women to attend high-level meetings, they must also be heard.
Her journey began in 2011 when she created waves as the first onsite female mechanical engineer trainee.
Hands-on experience is what Ms Hendi craved. She insisted on working at the plant rather than at the headquarters to better understand and oversee the execution of maintenance work.
The first plant was at Asab, a two-hour drive from the capital.
“We work in remote areas and it’s a demanding job that some people fear because you are cut off from the city.
“I had to fight because any fresh graduate was automatically sent to the site but women were placed in contracting or procurement. I wanted to be around machines even if that was out of the norm.”
Adnoc then facilitated her transition by providing transport, stay in a nearby hotel and a health centre in case of emergency for the plant’s sole female trainee.
Management ensured she attended high-level meetings and given access to machines.
“They waited for me first to show my willingness and then they opened the doors.
"I was the first lady to enter the gas turbine inlets: for some people that was unthinkable. But there is something special about being the only woman on site. It is an advantage, although people think it’s a disadvantage. It is an open platform to showcase my willingness to learn, my drive, knowledge and capabilities. I can be a pioneer.”
The challenge to break through cultural barriers remains.
As an Emirati woman, after an onsite meeting it was awkward to stay and chat in a room filled with Emirati men.
Her experience is much like women overseas who decades ago wanted acceptance in male after-office gatherings.
“In Emirati culture, it’s even worse because it’s not about dinners later. It’s simple networking, standing by the men and saying, ‘How are you?’ I could not do that. You hear of decisions taken by the water-cooler that are vital. But you are not part of it because you’re not one of the guys. I did miss out because I’m a woman.
"I’m still trying to make it normal for me to get into a circle of men, so others behind me will not feel this pain. I’m trying to be diplomatic while changing the mindset. This is not just for engineers, but for any woman in different male-dominated professions.”
The only engineer in the family, she has the support of her father, a computer programmer and mother who works in the special needs sector.
After six years in the company, she is focused on driving large-scale change and delivering improvements in business performance in daily plant operation.
She hoped to become first Emirati plant manager to run a site.
But a greater objective is empowering women by teaching soft skills she describes as more important than public speaking or putting together presentations.
“I resent this thought that women’s empowerment is about giving a woman a bigger office, a bigger title. The true meaning of empowerment is when a woman knows she is heard, seen and recognised.”
This is not limited to the oil and gas sector, Ms Al Hendi said.
“Sadly the reality is that we are still excluded. We may be sitting in a meeting but we are not heard. We may be heard but we are not processed. When a man says what you are saying, his word is immediately accepted. But you have to prove what you say even about a simple task.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it and say it is easy to be in such an industry where there are different personalities. Real empowerment is when you feel you are included and an equal, effective part of a team.”
She also believes it is crucial to educate staff about dealing with aggressive colleagues, again obstacles not restricted to the industry.
Women should be taught to document hostile behaviour and not retaliate in kind, Ms Al Hendi said.
“It’s not a nice topic to talk about. But we need to focus on an issue that is not spoken about. I was not equipped and I learnt the hard way. In a male-dominated industry, you need to educate women how to manage such situations. If someone speaks in wrong terms, do not retaliate because it will hurt you.
"I faced negative people. This happens in any industry. It could be the same with female managers. We can teach men and women these tools. I want to create change that will leave a positive stamp for those that follow me. This is a responsibility I feel strongly about.”
Her message for young girls is to snub the easy route.
“Being a woman in the oil and gas industry is not easy. But great things do not come easy. So steer away from easy: that is your worst enemy.”
UAE Government Leadership Programme
Mariam Al Hendi has been identified as a future leader.
She is Adnoc’s sole representative among 22 participants in an elite UAE Government Leadership Programme run by the Prime Minister's Office of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.
“This is an incredible opportunity that focuses on creating potential leaders that the Government can rely on. There will be a database of well-trained individuals equipped to support the Government whenever it may be required. It is a high-level programme that focuses on leadership skills, strategic thinking, taking executive decisions and finding innovative and creative solutions.”
She has won several leadership and excellence awards in the oil and gas industry.
Ms Al Hendi said company support has helped her succeed and win awards.
“Adnoc creates the right path for their women and pushes them to excel by providing the best facilities and support to ensure their development and integration, it is then the woman’s responsibility about how she utilizes this support.”
Along with a team she is working with the youth ministry to develop a platform to connect youth with leading industries.
“This is in the development stage, but the purpose is to create a direct link. You may have talent that can be utilised in an industry that requires your specific service. The industry will not pay for your service, but they can train you, so it’s a two-way stream that benefits the industry and provides training opportunity.”