Conversation on women in the work place

Informal conversation with a lovely senior female executive…

Me: “What do you wish to see happen for women in the workplace before your retire?”

Woman: “You know I don’t think I’ll give the typical response of saying more women in the workplace or more women at the top. I think those hopes are talked about enough in the media nowadays. I’d say my real desire is to see women stick together and support each other more. I wish to see the day when more women will realize the value that comes from truly helping other female colleagues – juniors, peers or seniors. I want when I recruit younger women and they’re told their direct boss will be a female, that they are excited by that as opposed to being apprehensive in many situations. When we respect and help each other for real – it is easier to then command that respect from men and society in general. We can’t continue to judge and undermine each other a lot of the times, and then turn around and say to the guys – ‘hey you gotta show us respect’. Obviously am not talking about all women…but there tends to be quite a few that fall into that category unfortunately.”

And after a longer debate on this point:

Me: “What’s your best advice to me?”

Woman: “Don’t ever be that kind of woman I am talking about. Trust me – most women don’t realize this until a much older age – nothing is stronger than a woman who surrounds herself with smart, successful women who genuinely mentally and emotionally support each other. When you grow up and face many of life’s problems…work and even personal – you’ll realize that support is crucial to your well-being. Unfortunately too many women at a younger age are seeking validation from men – be it within their families, with their partners or work. I mean I understand that. I was in your shoes too. But as the years pass you realize you spent too much time on that and somehow took for granted building strong ties with the good women who come into your life, whether its friends or co-workers.”

Women’s belongings…

I’m continuously perplexed by how (and why) women find it very easy to own and become possessive about their personal belongings..bags, shoes, clothes, furniture etc but when it comes to their success (whatever form that takes) they will tend to discuss it flippantly and will in many cases downplay it and feel more comfortable attributing it to pure luck? Why can’t women ‘own’ the things they’ve worked hard for in the same way they ‘own’ their belongings? #randomramblings

Life advice from a Mauritian billionaire

“Your generation…I don’t get you [said with a genuinely befuddled expression]… so many of you are happy just passing idle time standing on the platform waiting for the perfect train that’s just going to lead you to the best destination where all your hopes will suddenly be realized. You talk among each other and over-analyze everything. You show each other pictures or the lives you want to lead, of the partners you wish you have, of the places you wish to go and the things you’d love to do. But then, one train passes by and you say ‘oh this one is too crowded! I’ll wait for the next one.’ Next one comes and you say ‘oh, but this doesn’t have the right crowd in it.’ Next train you say ‘oh this doesn’t look as good as the previous one [the one you forgot you turned down in a second], and you spend years and years looking at pictures of your aspirational destination but you do minimal effort to get to it – or you refuse to fail on the way to get to it.

I just keep telling my kids, and I’ll tell you – take the god damned train…don’t ask too many questions, take it – give it your best shot – you’ll never know what it may bring you..maybe its not to your ‘happy’ destination, but you might meet great people on board, maybe you have a life-changing conversation, maybe you hop off somewhere nicer than what you had hoped…maybe you hate it – and decide to change paths. Who cares? But I can definitely tell you – keeping moving is so much better than standing stationery talking about your wishes!”

Life advice from one of Mauritius’ leading, self-made billionaries.

Humility at work

Today as I witnessed another work related scene (briefly relayed below), I wondered about the trait of Humility – is part of it just a ‘natural’ character trait? or is it cultivated – and if so how, when and by who?
Or is it something that can only truly exist by age?

We lack it a lot in the Arab world – whether its head of state, government officials, head of corporations, or even the average head of nothing but their own turf, operating in their daily lives interacting with people of a different social status, education, nationality etc.!

“Chairman: Has the [country] delegation arrived yet? Shall we go outside to meet them?

Junior employee: They’re 5 minutes away. No need for you to go down

Chairman: No we must

Junior employee: The most senior members aren’t coming in today anyway – they only arrive tomorrow.

Chairman: This has nothing to do with seniority. This is the first time we receive a delegation from this institution, let alone from the country. They just arrived from the airport. Literally this would be their first impression of the country and our organization. Never get fooled by seniority – whoever is VIP today could be removed tomorrow and whoever is ‘normal’ for you today could be this institution’s CEO in several years.  Me & you might be gone from this company – but these people will never forget their first impression today. So let’s make sure we make it a warm welcome!”

Life advice from the brinks of retirement

Because anyone who knows me knows am a sucker for asking ppl general life questions, and life advice & I can’t resist sharing it with ppl who enjoy the same kind of discussions:D. Below is some of what I remember from a very interesting lunch today with one of the senior managers in the company on their last day of work before retirement…

“” [on work] …Don’t let it all fool you. They suck you in. They give you titles, promotions, benefits – whatever it is – and it is an orchestrated process that just takes you from one year to the next and you lose the ability to track anything but a paycheck. And it all starts revolving around that – the paycheck. When is it? How much is it? When will it increase? How does it compare to my friends? Half the time you don’t even really need every penny in that paycheck but it controls you anyway…and you don’t want it to – but you can’t help it. I don’t know if there is a way out – or if it is one of those life realizations that you only come to fully internalize when you’re at the end of your career like me and you want to scream into the ears of every younger person to heed your advice….

[general life]…You end up spending so much of your time distracted by anything and everything – distracted away from the most crucial thing..yourself. And you invest in cars, and houses, and bags and shoes – and you forget to invest in yourself. You forget to schedule time with yourself, you forget to nurture your brain.If I can tell you anything it would be never stop investing in yourself…don’t wait on a man, don’t wait on a friend. Just every day – do something for you. Do something that nurtures you…learn to enjoy your own company – learn to enjoy you because even when you’re married there will be many moments in which you will be alone in your thoughts, or in your self-doubt or whatever it is… Nobody likes to admit that but it happens in every relationship. To think otherwise is naive…

[on marriage and family]…enjoy your independence now, flourish in it. Be stronger but flexible enough for new ways. Its not easy that – its a daily challenge – when to stay true to your way and when to be flexible. But eventually you’ll develop your own compass. Continue to grow – travel, read, learn and unlearn and learn again…that’s how you’ll be more valuable and indispensable always to your future husband or to your kids one days. One thing is clear to me now 3 kids and 2 marriages and divorces down the road…no one can really carry your baggage but yourself…and even those who love you most – they can help you intermittently but they too will tire out at some point. They can sprint alongside you at certain points – but the rest of the way its your marathon – you’re the one that has to pace yourself, and you just get better at that with age. I think I realized that too late and that’s why I failed in marriage. You keep waiting to find that ‘one person’ you feel some attraction and comfort with and then you meet someone and you think this is it – its like you’ve reached a destination, but that’s so far from reality. You’re so relieved to find someone who just gets you in several ways- you end up dumping all your baggage on that person thinking they’ll carry you through, and by the time you realize that’s not the way to go – it may be too late – and you leave realizing you just succeeded in burning each other out. When you love someone a lot – make sure they don’t just see the worst of you that you find difficult to share with anyone else- make sure they get to see your best too – and continue to experience you like how they first experienced you that first time when they saw you..”

Random women at a community iftar

Had the opportunity to have a ‘community Iftar’ yesterday which turned out to be a much more interesting encounter than I had anticipated. I sat with a friend I have only recently been acquainted with, a vivacious French woman who has recently moved to Dubai after almost two decades of work experience across multiple sectors in Europe, with both of us munching at an interesting menu that was supposed to be a Japanese-Arab fusion. Seated on the bench next to us were two clearly younger women (mid 20s probably) who we hardly had any interaction with throughout the Iftar time. At one point my friend goes to the restroom, and I ask one of these girls to pass me the Arabic coffee on the table, and she responds by saying “here is your qahwa (coffee)” in a very Saudi accent, despite her looking Southeast Asian to me. I was super intrigued, and so started making conversation with the two girls. I quickly realized this girl was half Saudi-half Chinese, and more interestingly the Chinese part comes from her father’s part (such a rare occurrence in the region in my opinion). Not only that, but this girl had studied law in Australia, and spent some time there. As an added coincidence we found out we both went to the same high school and know of common friends! Her friend was an Iraqi-Australian, with a very interesting immigrant background story herself.

Despite the fact that at that point my friend and I were about to leave, we ended up sitting for an additional two hours to discuss lots of global topics, including the current wave of feminism, and the changing role of women in society and the workplace with these girls. I sat back (while recovering from my post-Iftar food coma) and marveled at the varied experience on the table, not only across cultures and backgrounds with experiences being relayed from all of the Middle East, Europe, the US, China and Australia, but also across the different age brackets, with the age range going from 25-43, and truly internalizing how much has changed in society and the workplace when it comes to women for the different generations present at the table.

At one point, the Saudi-Chinese girl was retelling one of her discriminatory work stories (ironically bought about by a female manager), and her passionate and outspoken response to her manager refusing to accept the incident. My friend, the French woman, who is in her early 40s said:

“See this is what I love about millennials. You’re very outspoken about everything, and you want to change everything, and you will refuse to be just bossed around for no reason. Good for you, but there is a sad part of me when I see how passionate you are about speaking out on everything. My sadness comes as I reflect on my own career and wonder why I never spoke out myself, and why my generation did not act in the way that you did. I was almost raped three times in three different work contexts. That is aside from the endless trail of incidents of very visible sexism I have observed working in the hugely machismo automotive sector. I was told to fetch the tea when I was meant to be the presenter in different meetings. I was told off in Germany for putting on French manicure and some light makeup, and told I didn’t look professional enough and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by the men. I spent years waking up every day thinking of how I can shield and hide my feminine self as much as possible going into work every day. I was always referred to in emails as Mr. Vincent, even when I would respond back and make it clear I was a female. I was told to go through ‘customary check ups’ of the automotive company I worked at for years in Germany, where the first health checkup needed on the front cover of the manual was that of the prostate, and HR didn’t even bat an eye or internalize that the manual itself did not assume the presence of any women, and this was in the 2000s. But I stayed silent, and kept going on because my female colleagues and I – we could see that those who spoke out and complained too much ended up somehow losing their jobs. And for me maintaining a job and financial independence was key. But now when I see how outspoken you all are I say maybe my generation we were just cowards.”

The Saudi-Chinese girl quickly puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and responds: “No. You can’t ever think of it that way. Why don’t you think that because you persevered, because you stuck it out you and your female friends, you were not laid off, and so eventually you were promoted, and then you started being aware that you should hire more women as you were just saying. As a result there are a lot more women in the workplace now and it has become a more normal occurrence that we can now afford to speak up in the way that we do. So in a way your silent perseverance is what enabled us, because maybe had you spoken out earlier, we wouldn’t have been here today because you would have been silenced or removed from your post and that status quo would have prevailed.”

The French woman, taken by these words, teared up lightly, and said “oh thank you what a lovely way to frame it – to make it feel like we’re all part of one journey, as opposed to disjointed stories…you’re so right!”

I sat back and smiled and thought what great interactions come when people from different backgrounds collide, have a discussion and share experiences and more importantly when women of different ages and backgrounds sit at one table and relish each other’s true presence as opposed to sizing each other up on society’s metrics of youth, beauty, fashion etc. There was so much to take in at that table. The Iraqi path to Australian immigration, the Saudi-Chinese girl’s mother’s struggle and strength to marry a non-Saudi, the French woman’s path of independence and her own intriguing story of adoption and tracing her roots back to North Africa. The beauty on that table had nothing to do with how these women looked or dressed or how old or young they were, and that feeling felt very refreshing. Now I felt re-energized to lean back in…only to grab the dessert on the table though;)

The Arab standard of flawless English

I notice how people in Egypt in certain socioeconomic circles put a significant premium on speaking flawless English (& maybe other languages), being educated in a Western country (doesn’t matter where – maybe the work ranking universities but so long as it can be said I studied in the UK or the US), or at least being part of the AUC community.

With that ‘premium market positioning’ comes a whole series of assumptions that over time I find fail to have any merit and realize more and more it is nothing but a halo effect. First of all there is a natural assumption that this combination would automatically lead to or signal success within the business world, whereas many know that while this may definitely facilitate the path it is never a guaranteed outcome. Worse than that are the social assumptions around these people. We are usually quick to think just because of the perfect English pronunciation and Western education they’re progressive thinkers, exhibit excellent social etiquette, have good mannerisms, demonstrate respect for women, support staff & lower socioeconomic classes. Basically it is everything that has become socially acceptable to sum up in the phrase “2asl doul welad el nas”.

The reality is I keep meeting people from these circles who may have that outer facade (the sophisticated look, the eating mannerisms, the perfect English pronunciation) yet their mindsets are extremely judgmental showing a complete lack of tolerance or understanding for anyone/ anything different to what they know. Moreover I keep seeing profiles of people in this category who openly exhibit disrespect to the opposite gender (mostly men to women) and even more to the rest of the society that they deem “ranks” beneath them. In many circumstances they act in an entitled manner like walking down the street they ‘deserve’ a better treatment than everyone else – all this while they’ll roll down the window of their Mercedes or BMW, and throw their trash out of it with a complete lack of concern over any of their behavior.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I continue to get exposed to old generation company founders, traders and people who have grown companies over decades literally from scratch who came from very ‘simple’ families. At times these people are not even from Cairo, and speak English in a broken accent but have traveled all over the world and to parts seldom heard of to grow their business, and despite the premium placed on flawless English, surprise surprise they managed to get around & flourish!! They have an impeccable business acumen in their sectors and great negotiation skills. They are street smart. They may not have the most elegant dining manners or dress in a fashionable way but the way they deal with everyone around them is very humble and respectful. I just met one today who beyond his extremely impressive business story, spoke with utmost humility and demonstrated gallantry and an EQ I have not seen in a long time. I was taking notes from this guy on his business strategy like I was taking notes during any HBS class I attended. This person was educated in a tier 2 Egyptian university (definitely not the norm but the examples exist), and speaks very simply, yet he spoke to me with the utmost respect I have received from an older man recently.

I started reflecting on many conversations I have sat on socially with the flawless English speakers segment of the population (myself included) where people sit and talk about the greatness and appeal of the American self-made stories; the entrepreneurs and founders who bootstrapped and lived in poverty and had immense grit and perseverance for years. I never understood the hypocrisy of praising those profiles when it’s an American story yet ridiculing very similar stories in one’s own Egyptian society, leaving the great success stories and saying things like “oh but he doesn’t speak English properly” or “he doesn’t hold the knife and fork in an elegant manner”. Such double standards, but the most important thing naturally is “enou el wa7ed yekoun ibn nas” (whatever that is supposed to mean)…