Photo Credit: Khalid Habib
These businesswomen are leaders in male-dominated fields and have what it takes to be successful both at home and in the office
By: Ethar El-Katatney
Being an ambitious Egyptian woman is hard these days. The Stepford wife has long been considered by grandmothers and prospective husbands as the pinnacle of womanly aspirations, but today’s woman is not content to just bake the daily bread — she wants to earn it as well. Society’s severely critical eye upon them, along with parental expectations to build a ‘good’ marriage, many young women face a quandary when they graduate: With career women far from being the placid mothers-to-be that have long been idealized by bachelors and in-laws alike, should one work or remain jobless until marriage?
Business Today Egypt spoke with six extraordinary women, who are not just courageous career women but extraordinary leaders and role models. Some work in heavily male-dominated fields, and most juggle a husband, home and children with their professional responsibilities.
It’s common sense that to be a successful career woman, you should choose a company that has a women-friendly culture, and have a supportive family and husband. You must be able to balance your home and work life, have good time-management skills and be able to prioritize. But these women go far beyond the minimums — they talk of their ups and downs, their insights about today’s working women, and how they believe society perceives women in the workforce. They talk about their careers, the obstacles they face, what it takes to be successful, and their advice to the aspiring young twenty-first century Hoda Shaarawi.
The Computer Engineer
Engineer Dawlat Hashem works as an assistant general manager in the IT department of Egyptian Natural Gas Holding (EGAS). Graduating from Ain Shams University in 1989, Hashem found it hard to work in the then 100%-male-dominated factories, and so began her career in the computer sector, despite her qualifications as an engineer. She has worked with computers for over 17 years, and began her career as a computer technician. She is married with a 14 year-old son and a 9 year-old daughter. Edited excerpts:
I started taking computer courses once I graduated. It wasn’t easy or familiar, but I studied a lot and worked a lot, until I became familiar with computers. I was the only female working in this field, but it’s something that I’m used to, because I’m an engineer.
All my life I’ve been the only woman. I used to work hard and always made an impression: that regardless of if I’m a woman or a man, I can do the job. In the IT field, you don’t have the luxury of ‘I’ll fix it tomorrow.’ You have to do it now, because all the work of the company is depending on the computers.
I worked for about four years, and then I got married to one of my colleagues. He was very supportive from the beginning. He’s from the IT field too, and we used to share everything. I didn’t face any problems regarding the balance between home and work because I’m a very organized person. I dedicate myself at work and then when I come back home I dedicate myself to me and my home. My kids learned to be very independent, to do their homework alone. And we share everything together — for instance, when I’m in the kitchen, they set the table; the most important thing is for the whole family to share.
To be successful as a woman, you need to be a very hard worker, very focused and very organized. You need to be on an equal basis with the men. Never let them feel that you cannot work hard or you cannot stay late. My company is a local one, but they always work with international companies and so are open to having female employees. I’ve never faced any problems in work because I’m a woman, and that’s because from day one they never looked at me as if I was a woman — they looked at me as an engineer, and I was capable of doing everything they did. I never told them “Oh, I have to go; I have a problem at home.” This made them very cooperative and understanding.
I never thought that men look at me as inferior in any way, and I think that now they accept all working women. But in our culture, men are not used to sharing things with their wives. Yes, she works and he accepts that she works because of the financial problem and he needs the salary, but she’s also responsible for the house, the cleaning, the cooking, the kids, everything! I think men have to be more cooperative with their wives and to share the responsibilities with them so that women don’t become exhausted and tense.
When I look at my life and all the effort I put in, I am happy. I’m satisfied with the position I’m in and I’m looking forward to advancing in the hierarchy of the company. I believe that a glass ceiling no longer exists for women. Women can now do whatever they want and I think society is ready for women to take the lead and be leaders. However, I think women have to make more effort — it’s no longer society that is holding them back, it’s women that aren’t exerting enough effort. They need to step it up.
The Steel Money Lady
As the Treasury Manager at Ezz Flat Steel Company (EFS), Azza El-Shennawy is also a woman working in a field that she didn’t plan on entering. Graduating in 1989 from AUC with a computer science degree, she shifted to the finance industry when she realized that computer programming was too time-consuming. Married with two children, it made sense to change. After a stint at EAB, she moved to Ezz. Edited Excerpts:
Because my job is in manufacturing, it is male-dominated. The management doesn’t feel comfortable hiring females and prefer to have men around them more so than women, since men can work longer hours and go to the field more freely. But when I work with senior management I don’t feel that they are uncomfortable with me being a woman — they are actually considerate.
The biggest fear that men have about women at the top is not that they don’t like women or feel they are incompetent, but that they fear women leaving in the middle of the project, or saying ‘I can’t work long hours’ or ‘I cannot travel’ or ‘I don’t want to do this.’ They treat women according to the stereotype they have about them: that a woman is fragile, she will crack under pressure, she will not be able to hold on, and she will disappoint them in the middle of something. And so they avoid giving her the big tasks.
But if you organize your time properly, and you have a schedule — which you make clear to everyone that they have to respect — then it’s doable. I always stress on the quality of work rather than the time taken to implement it, so if the job can be done in an hour there’s no need to do it in a couple of days. In my job, I have never faced, at any time, being stuck in the middle of deadlines. I always manage my time well, and this has been one of my strong points. I always want to maintain my balance: time for my house and time for my job — I don’t want things to overlap.
I’m a very balanced person and so I tend to avoid the spotlight. I always wanted to fly under the radar so I don’t get detected, because when you are under the spotlights, forget about balance! So I never tried to seek very senior positions, even if they were available to me. I want to be effective, and I want to be efficient. I care more about being a specialist and not a manager. I know it’s not the usual prototype but this has always been me.
The main thing in balance is that you have to be able to switch yourself on and off as required. You go to your job you switch it on. You go out of your job you switch it off. You go home you switch it on. I’ve learned that not everyone can do this, but no matter how big the problem is at work, you can’t take it home with you and vice versa.
Not everyone can be a successful career woman who also manages to take care of her home and children. I’ve met ladies who are wonderful in their jobs and it would be a shame not to utilize their brains and efforts and knowledge, but I’ve also met ladies who work just for the sake of working, just because she doesn’t want to stay home. Usually I suggest that this second type of woman stay home, because she’s not adding anything to herself or to the workplace. She’s not useful, and so I feel that she should be useful at home. I would advise parents that if their daughter is the lazy kind, one that doesn’t want to add much to society and enjoys being coddled and spoiled — advise her not to take a difficult career path.
It’s difficult being a woman, because we don’t have so much of a choice in choosing between a husband and a career if we have to. If you have a very special person in your life you cannot just turn him down because of your career, and I advise women that if they have a very special person in their lives to follow their hearts. If you don’t have anyone special in your life, don’t worry about it. Go ahead, do the best in your job and don’t think that if you’re a career woman, no man would marry you — this is not true. If a man doesn’t admire your brains, he’s not an added-value in your life, and you can do without him.
The PR Lady
Dina Galal began working as a way to escape the burden of being a wife and mother. She graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Science in 1979 with an economics degree, but worked in a completely unrelated field. Starting in a family business, she got married and had two children before she began working at IBM as an office manager, where she has been ever since. She has a 25-year-old son, a 19-year-old daughter, and is now Communications Manager & Regional Diversity Manager for IBM Egypt. Edited excerpts:
Because I got married really young, work represented a getaway from my kid. I was young, I was loaded with the responsibilities of looking after a child, and it wasn’t fun. It is lovely to look after a child, but with a lot of plans and ambitions in your mind, you think I can balance both. I used to leave my kid with my mom, go to work and achieve something, then back to my kid again. Work was a tool to achieve part of my ambition, a part of my freedom, getting away from the home and the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, taking care of my kid. And so I took it like this, it wasn’t really a serious decision for a career, it was an escape.
My husband was really supportive, he wanted to keep my morale up and whatever pleased me he would go for, because it would reflect on the family in the end. If I’m happy then they’ll be happy, if not then I can make their lives miserable!
As I started to grow and learn more about different work responsibilities, I started taking it seriously. IBM focuses on a lot of pillars and constituencies, and one of them is women advancing to higher levels. In the technical lab, 35% of the workforce are females — a very high percentage — so being a female was not an obstacle for me in the workplace.
My main obstacle is work-life balance, something which may impede your professional growth. As a woman, sometimes you have to take a leave of absence, and at times you have to be there for your family. And unless the mentality of the top management is understanding, then this will be a problem.
I will say that in Egypt five or six years ago this was a big obstacle, but not so much now. I can work from home now, and if my kid is sick and I can’t go to work, I can access my mail and I can collaborate with my team colleagues. Technology has helped us women a lot. I work two days from home, and three days from the office in agreement with managers, and you can do this if your work allows you to do this. So work-life balance is one of the key challenges to being a woman working. There is also the challenge of creating a mindset within top management that a woman working from home is not playing and can grow to top management positions.
As for the argument that men don’t like career women, I think this was before — now it’s taken for granted that women should work. This argument may be my mother’s or grandmother’s, but I think men now also ask women to work, to help support the family in facing life’s challenges and living better lives by adding his salary to her salary.
If men ask women to stay at home then it will be just for them — so they can relax and be assured that everything at home is nice and OK. In that case, he should marry a nanny! Because the things he wants her to stay home and do can be done by someone else on her behalf while she works and achieves her goals.
The important thing for women to remember is to find the right balance, never work to the extent that they forget their family and don’t let their family absorb them to the extent that they don’t perform and achieve. The word ‘good’ is relative, but basically, to be considered a ‘good’ career woman, there are a lot of commonalities you must have such as ethics, business conduct, and dedication. However, I will say that being eager to learn makes one successful, as is showing passion. You could be good and never get anywhere, because unless you show that you have the ambition, no one will take notice. You need to make your bosses sit up and notice, hey, we do exist!
Graduating in 1993 with a degree in economics from the Economics and Political Science Department of Cairo University, Heba Kamel is PepsiCo International’s planning manager, and has been working there for three years. She started her career in banking, worked for over half a decade, traveled to the United States on a scholarship to get her MBA degree and came back to be employed in the private sector. Edited Excerpts:
I’ve been very career-oriented and focused on my career, and my aspirations were really, really high. I’ve been working very hard, and now I’m paying my family back.
So many women say that being a female is an obstacle to succeeding at work, but I’ve never felt that there was an obstacle for a woman in the workplace. I think it’s our own fear that tells us we are facing challenges — it’s always easy to blame something that you don’t have any control over. So if a woman is not doing well at work or not getting promoted, she can say, ‘It’s because I’m a woman and I’m not getting credit.’
The challenge for women I see is the amount of effort they have to put in, which is a lot more than men do, because they have other commitments to take care of. The amount of responsibilities they have are a lot more, and they are often distracted and all over the place because they have to take care of so many things But if women don’t let this commitment hinder them or hold them back, they can do perfectly fine. In our culture, versus a lot of other cultures abroad, I think women can do fine — they don’t face a lot of obstacles.
I think the fact that I work is part of the reason why I’m still not married, for two main reasons. One reason is that I put so much time and effort at work. The second is that work makes you more intimidating and more mature, and that’s sort of intimidating to many men. You don’t get along very easily with many men and they don’t accept you, because our culture is still not very comfortable with having women in high positions. Guys like to see successful women but they don’t want to marry them, they don’t want to have them at home. They would like to see them somewhere, at work, in an official forum, but not at home.
I think this is part of our Egyptian culture. I’m a big believer that cultures don’t change naturally: they change based on need. The need is coming and itsit’s compelling. Now you can rarely find households supported only by the man working; the household needs both. That’s probably how our culture will start to change. Men will have to live with it, accept it — and they will have to support it. If it was up to them, they probably won’t change, but if the need is there then they’ll have to change; they’ll have to accept or they’ll struggle and be miserable.
I would advise women to be true to themselves. If you are very much into your work and satisfied then that’s fine, and if you feel the need to have a family then that’s fine — but don’t do something that society wants and you don’t. Otherwise you’ll end up miserable, even though society is happy with you. Self-satisfaction should be the key.
Women have a lot of potential, don’t waste it! I was once at work and I saw a new face in the corridor, so I introduced myself to him. He told me that he had had two options for a job and I asked him why he chose PepsiCo. He said that the other job would have been very demanding, and that he’d have to work from 9am-6pm, and sometimes stay as late as nine. [He told them] “You need to hire a female.” I said “that doesn’t sound right, what do you mean?” He replied that “in university, women sit in the first row, and they put a lot of effort because they have a lot to prove while we don’t.” So my advice to all women is to stay like we were in college, to be diligent, to put in as much effort as you can, to focus on your personal challenges, to be persistent, and to never give up.
The Bank Lady
A Business Administration graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC), Maha Heba Enayatalla got married fresh out of university, took a gap year and then started working at the Commercial International Bank (CIB). She’s never looked back and 24 years later, she is head of SME Banking, what many consider to be the future of the Egyptian market. Edited excerpts:
I’ve never faced any discrimination at work. But I can’t judge what other women in Egypt go through, because I know there is discrimination here and I do hear about it. I was lucky in this because at my bank there has have always been women in leading positions, and most of the people who contributed positively to the growth of the bank were women.
I’ve never thought my work would be easier if I was a man — not with regards to how things were going in the organization, only with regards to the fact that women have more responsibilities. The main challenge I think women face, and I’m sure we’ve all said this, is balance between home and work. I have one daughter, and when you are in a challenging position with stressful responsibilities and long hours, it is difficult to balance.
You have to try and maintain the equilibrium between your family life, your personal life and your career. You are a mother, a wife and a daughter. There are things that represent an obligation and a joy in your life, like your child. When you give to any of these things, there is joy while doing so, but it is still a duty or an obligation. So give as much as you want, but remember to look out for your rights, so you can have self-satisfaction.
Because we are so busy, we tend to forget all about our friends, and we don’t enjoy things that are not obligations but give us joy, like a cup of coffee with some cousins or traveling alone. But these things are much needed remedies and they are important for our health. Almost everyone I know in high positions has health issues, such as problems with their back. When you have no time to look after yourself and do things that provide peace for you, it reflects badly on your health. After a certain time and long years at work, you will find that you are really drained and to remedy that you have to have equilibrium.
If a woman has a sense of self-confidence and can balance and can organize her time, she will succeed. What’s really shocking for me is that nowadays, it’s not a matter of young men preferring to marry women who will be housewives, but that young women don’t want to work anymore! I see many, many young women, fresh graduates, who say ‘I want to graduate and stay at home.’ Maybe it’s because they had working mothers who were out all the time, or they think this is the easier way to spend their lives, or even that they want to be able to stay up late! It’s shocking and ridiculous that the percentage of women who don’t want to work now is so high, totally different from when we graduated— and I don’t think it’s because we had something to prove back then.
I believe it is useless to have half of society sitting at home — what sort of society will this be? It is bad for the economy if half of the people in it are unproductive. Not to mention that for women who stay at home, you will always be the wife, daughter and mother of somebody, and you won’t have much to look forward to. Work gives a sense of self-fulfillment and independence.
The biggest piece of advice I can give to women is to choose a career that you really like. Don’t ever do something that society expects of you. If you have a hobby that you can turn into a job, then specialize in it from college. What you study should help qualify you to work in a certain field. Don’t follow the crowd, don’t think ‘let’s all do business administration or economics because this is the ticket to success.’ Pick your career before you join university, not after graduating.
My job fulfills me — SMEs create almost 80% of Egypt’s GDP, and two thirds of all employment (excluding government jobs) comes from SMEs. And when I contribute in developing this sector, I feel that my work is not only contributing to the growth of my organization but to the growth of my country. The value of your job has to satisfy you.
In the end, remember that life is divided into obligations and rights, but they all have to fit in a jigsaw, and in the ways you want them to fit. How much time you dedicate to each jigsaw puzzle, and the pieces you skip, is all up to you.
The youngest of the bunch, graduating from AUC in 1998 with a degree in construction engineering and subsequently a master’s degree from the US in 2002, Mona El Kolaly is now Business Development Manager of family-owned business Kolaly Technology (a branch of Kolaly Engineering where she started her career). She has been married for one year. Edited excerpts:
I did some interior design work in the US while I was doing my master’s degree and I took some painting classes. But, when I came back I started working for the family business. I admit that pressure to work in the family business was considerable, but I wanted to go into the construction field, which I studied, and we already had a construction company. So, Kolaly Engineering is where I started work. Working at Kolaly Technology is easier, since we provide pre- and post-sales support in Egypt for some of the world’s leading hardware and software manufacturers. My job is to get new partners and to negotiate with them, not to be in the field. But both jobs have presented problems.
In the construction business I used to face lots of trouble. I had training in the field, and working with construction workers used to create problems at times — not to mention having paint falling over you! It was not easy to do, and you need to be very smart with very good communication skills to mingle with the engineers. You also need to be as clumsy as you can in your looks so you don’t look in any way attractive. I’m almost always in a male-dominated sector, and even at AUC I was the only girl for two years in many of the classes, but I was able to handle it. You just need to be cautious, and to draw limits with men. Be friendly but cautious; you cannot be 100% yourself, you have to be very professional.
In my job now, I could talk to someone on the phone on and off for six months before we meet, and when he sees me he would have some cultural issue because I’m a woman and I look very young. Some men also have a religious issue with shaking hands or he would avoid looking at me at all during the meeting. I would have to send my boss after I leave so he can continue things with him, and he had to have a Muslim name to reassure the client.
Being a woman in a high position is not easy, regardless of your field. I would advise women to look into themselves and know what their goals are, what skills they have, and what they want to be. You need to choose the path according to the things you are good at, because you could have something that you really like, but it doesn’t fit into your character. If that’s the case, you will really struggle in doing it and won’t enjoy yourself. Work to develop your skills: join organizations and social activities that will help you in adjusting skills you have or developing those you are not strong at.
Success is not related to gender, it is related to character. Success to me means knowing what I want and working to achieve it, while not losing sight of everything else. Think of your life as a flower, with you in the center. The petals represent things you are doing or want to do: family, friends, house, husband, children, social activities, charity work, fitness and leisure time. How much time you give to each depends on the person, but to be successful you need to have a mixture of things. Everyone has duties, and making them enjoyable will help you be successful.
To me, being successful at work and failing at home is a big failure. For a man, the reverse is a major problem — but a woman can decide to stay at home if necessary. I advise all women to have something they can do even if it’s not a permanent job, because if they have something to do during the day they will have self-satisfaction, and can fulfill Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The Women’s Leadership Program
If you need more proof that these women are the cream of the crop, consider this: Business Today Egypt met them all at a $6,700, five-day Women’s Leadership Program in the Conrad Cairo Hotel. That’s almost LE 40,000 worth of talent, excluding hotel accommodation.
Organized by the Egyptian Future Generation Foundation (FGF) in cooperation with the American Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), these six women, along with another 13 participants, went through a rigorous selection process two months prior to the program. The goal of the program was to help mid-to-upper level women managers face today’s challenges.
Throughout the five days, the women went through a variety of learning techniques to learn highly specialized leadership skills from 12 CCL coaches — two senior trainers and 10 feedback coaches — who were flown in from the US (hence the high costs of the conference). Through discussions, assessments, practice sessions, peer feedback, team learning activities and individual coaching sessions, the participants were able to delve deeper into their specific work issues, their strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to manage conflict.
“The program helps people understand how other people might understand and react to the way they are at work” explains Kim Leahy, CCL Enterprise Associate and organizational psychologist. “We focus on things like: how do I strengthen my network? How do I work through people to get things done? How do I strengthen relationships I have and what are those relationships? We also cover a lot about how I mature in an organization and how do I manage myself in it. Other topics include how do different personality characteristics mean I interact differently, [and how then to] notice what’s happening and react in a way suitable to the moment.”
Enayatalla believes that the coaches were an asset to the program, and clearly of a high caliber, who helped put the participants on track. El Kolaly agrees with her, and says that the coaching process was very beneficial to her. She adds that “it was a very good idea having coaches as foreigners because  in Egyptian culture people have difficulty opening up with people, especially if they’re going to talk about their career and goals and problems. Therapy is something they do in [the] States like eating and drinking, but here, it’s a bit taboo. People wouldn’t have taken it that easy if the coaches were Egyptian.”
Dr. Talula CartWright, senior faculty member at CCL and a leadership educator and coach, encourages leaders to attend these sessions because they “become more self aware.
“Any leader who is very effective has to be self aware, able to know the strengths that he or she has and how to use those strengths while making sure that their deficiencies don’t get in the way,” she says.
El-Shennawy believes that this aspect was the best thing about the program. “As one of our colleagues s ‘you always look at yourself in the mirror and see the outside, this program makes you look at the inside.’ You know yourself, but others don’t know you, and they judge you according to what they see — body language and tone of voice. I knew my negative points, but I didn’t know how to tackle them or where they came from.”
Sixteen of the participants were Egyptian, with three Pakistani women joining the group. Twenty-nine-year-old Abida Khimani, who is originally Pakistani but was born and lived all her life in the UAE, works at IBM Dubai, and mentions that the Egyptian women in the program were very impressive. “I had the impression that Egyptian women are beautiful, but they also seem much more intelligent and so warm,” she says. “I never thought I’d see so many intelligent women in one room.”
FGF (fgf.org.eg) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization formed in 1998 by leading members of the private sector. Its objective is to develop Egypt’s business sector, enabling it to compete in the global arena. Gamal Mubarak sits as chairman and Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid is one of its board members. They do this by offering high quality, practical, state of the art human resources development activities in three units: a youth academy, a communication and IT academy and a center for executive excellence. These units, according to their press package, help them in “empowering and educating our youth, globalizing our executives, and internationalizing our professionals.”
Founded in 1970 in North Carolina as a non-profit educational institution focusing on leadership research and programs, CCL (ccl.org) works with 20,000 global leaders annually. This year, CCL earned a top 10 ranking worldwide by a Financial Times survey for providers of executive education. The program held in Egypt has been replicated in many countries across the world, and their mission is to better society through understanding leadership team organizations. CCL owns the content of the program and this is the second time it has been repeated in Egypt. bt