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Entrepreneur Diaries: Bridging the gender divide


By Hazel Jackson, CEO of biz-group, voted ‘Top SME to work for in UAE’.

October 6, 2013 12:12 by

CEO of biz-group writes about her experiences of being a female CEO in the UAE

Having founded and run a business in Dubai for the past 20 years, I hear one question repeatedly: What is it like being a woman in business in the Middle East region?

What I want to say is: No different than being a man.

While the question is often asked when I’m travelling in the US or Europe, I feel obliged to do the region justice and respect the glass ceiling that many women face globally.

I think being a female CEO in the UAE is quite a unique case but, as with anywhere in the world, starting and growing a business is about deciding what you want and then taking the steps necessary to make sure you achieve your goals.

But there are always challenges. It requires determination, passion, a great idea and the tenacity to follow through. It means you sacrifice a lot in the early days and still lose it all.  That’s the nature of the beast. Whether you are a women or a man, the journey might not be exactly the same – it’s a tough, but hugely rewarding experience.

I know this is an unacceptable answer, as people want to hear the challenges I’ve faced as a woman in what is perceived as a male-dominated world. They want a tough story, with the incredible breakthrough ending. But the reality is, I was lucky.

The business environment has changed significantly in the past 20 years, not only in the region, but even globally. Back when I was starting out, I had the mindset that I would succeed; I didn’t see the male versus female divide and I have never faced any industry or company barriers to success because of my gender. Perhaps, the division was there, I just wasn’t looking.

I’ve always believed that you can’t change other people’s prejudices or perceptions. If someone thinks that women don’t make good business negotiators, or young people can’t train older managers, or certain nationalities won’t succeed in the Middle East region, there is nothing I can do to change their mindset.

What I can do is change their perceptions about me. I can extract myself from their preconceived ideas and they will make an exception. I also believe that with time, if they encounter enough great female negotiators, for example, their prejudices would change.

I’ve always found the UAE nationals to be hugely respectful towards women. Even before we had free zones and easy routes to setting up businesses, I was encouraged to move to the front of a queue, given preferential service and treated like a VIP.

The UAE can be one of the most encouraging countries when it comes to setting up a business and rewards are plenty for those who are focused and dedicated. But the streets aren’t paved with gold and you need to put in some serious grit, build relationships and networks, and prove that you can genuinely deliver.

I was determined to succeed so I set about being the best young trainer, the best negotiator, the best boss and didn’t give a second thought to the fact I was female. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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