Over the last year, I’ve been asked a lot about how it feels to be a female in the predominantly male advertising industry. More often than not I respond with a puzzled look because truth be told, I have never really faced adversity in my career. So, I have to wonder why? Why has my experience been different than so many others? After all, it's true – I'm a female Creative Director, and when I started climbing the career ladder I was one of the 3%. I have worked for men in almost all of my jobs, sat in many conference rooms where I was the only female, and yet I still didn’t feel like this was any kind of “predicament."
I needed to understand WHY.
What I discovered was a commonality among the people I surrounded myself with and worked for. As I moved along my career path, and interviewed and accepted positions, I ended up working for men who naturally empower women. These men were expressive, kind mentors who challenged me and wanted to give me the floor when I was ready. No different than the way people have habits in romantic relationships, being drawn to people who may treat them in a certain way (good or bad!) – I believe I had a natural inclination towards bosses who would give me responsibility, let me shine, mentor me with respect, value my opinion, but most importantly allow me to challenge them.
Challenging myself and those around me is part of my DNA, and something that I am realizing comes from my Jewish upbringing. Growing up, I attended private yeshivahs where it was common to juggle nine Hebrew subjects, many of which were devoted to “probing ancient Jewish texts” to seek deeper meaning and truth.
These were deep commentaries where one could spend hours agonizing about the meanings behind a single word or examining multiple viewpoints.
This habit of questioning everything was prized growing up, and “thinking for oneself” was a quality I was encouraged to embody.
At the time, I probably complained about staying in school for 12 hours, but now I am thankful I have the rigor to volley with the best strategists, argue the merits of a headline, question the briefs, or our goals and objectives. At the heart of this learning style is also the ability to walk around and see things empathetically from various points of view.
As I envision the environments in which women don’t succeed - it is where their opinion is not equal, or valued or if they aren’t being HEARD or given the credit nor credence of their point of view. It’s not like I haven’t encountered the industry clichés.
I have had to shut down unwelcome advances, and have shouted above the fray of male colleagues with a booming voice, but I now realize that I am lucky it wasn’t worse. I was fortunate to be spared a lot of what has plagued my industry – women who have been shamed, coerced and made to feel uncomfortable. Sadly, it is becoming clear that my situation is unique.
So, my advice to women of all ages, ethnicities, level of seniority and even industry: Be careful where you spend your time - don’t just size up the work opportunities when deciding on your next move - consider the ecosystem.
Think about the way you felt in an interview, ask to meet the people you will be working with directly – make sure the environment is hospitable towards not just you, but women as a whole. Even after you have accepted a position - always continue asking yourself if you feel heard, supported and equal. If the answer is no, move on and find your tribe - because it’s out there, I promise you.
We are living in exciting times – with a seismic shift upon us – #metoo and #timesup are not just moments- but movements that are defining our here and now and also creating a BEFORE and an AFTER. They are allowing our shared voices to have power, and conversations to be had out loud.
I hope this movement makes it easier for any woman to walk away from a situation that doesn’t serve her – and to find support. Women are lifting others up in a way that I didn’t see when I was moving through the ranks- and it’s thrilling to witness.
I know that as a female leader in my field, the most important role I have is possibly as a shelter – where other women can come to talk or seek advice, but it is also my job to create a safe, welcoming environment for anyone who hasn’t had a voice in the past.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.