‘Refreshing, challenging & inspirational’ were not words that I expected to use to describe the work I have been doing in the Middle East over the last year.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous and uncertain about my decision to work as a female facilitator in Qatar in January 2019. So much is written about the challenges that are presented to being a female facilitator in the Middle East, and that level of cautionary press is bound to affect one’s perceptions and expectations. But work there I did, and then in Saudi Arabia later on in the year, and my experiences were some of the most refreshing and motivating of my 30 year career.
Why was this?
- I enjoyed learning about cultures that were significantly different to my own.
- I realised that if I kept my mind set curious rather than judgmental, I was able to learn a lot about myself and my hidden assumptions. I began to notice how my unconscious bias was becoming conscious and I was able to challenge my mindset. I looked for the positives in social groupings along gender lines and began to see a man holding the door open for me as respectful.
- Although women at work wear the abaya, head scarves or the niqab, they are not shy and retiring; I was inspired by the passion and determination of the women I met.
- Rather than being restricted by the clothing, because of the nature of it, the increased eye contact with the women, in particular those wearing the niqab, gave me a feeling of a deeper connection.
- I felt physically safe at all times in both countries and was not stared at by men. I felt respected as a woman and there was a lack of overt sexualisation of women and girls that was refreshing.
- While there are things that women cannot do in their culture as they could in our Western culture, the opposite also applies; within many of the day to day work conversations there is an equality in contribution that I had not been expecting. Although during breaks and more social activities the split is usually on gender lines, this did mean that, being a woman, the lack of men in the room changed the dynamic of the debates and conversations. The conversations with other women during these times were insightful and challenging.
- Within learning sessions women openly challenged the men around thoughts and behaviours about Leadership. On one occasion a male participant shared with me over coffee that women were bringing a level of drive into the work place that is not only refreshing but also encourages the men to up their game. I am not sure this view is held by all!
- Rather than feeling restricted by wearing the abaya, I really enjoyed it; it felt liberating and there is plenty of scope to personalize my dress. I found a company in the UK called CoverMe which sells lovely Abayas, Kimomos and Trouser Suits, which gave me plenty of variety. I was able to wear different colours and accessorise with scarfs, shoes and bangles.
- There is a thirst for knowledge and learning in the Middle East region from both male and female participants that was refreshing and motivating.
- I had lots of fun facilitating the sessions. I am comfortable using appropriate humour and activities that encourage authentic participation. Each time the groups reached the point where they started to feel comfortable with us, myself and my co-facilitator found that the level of rapport enabled have fun with some of the differences between genders and cultures. Contrary to stereotypes, the Middle East participants we met really wanted to explore these differences. One of the most memorable sessions was when we looked at the use of open questions in coaching, and as a “case study” we used my personal challenge, which centred round whether in the next few years of my career I was going to work more, or spend more time with my husband. We found that they were very keen to explore an area that was potentially controversial, and we did so in a way that brought everyone significant insights with lightness and humour.
- Success for me was down to the approach of the Cranfield Team who had set up the project and the associated facilitation work. They had done it in a way that was respectful of the cultural mix, and throughout they had endeavoured to create a collaborate approach to the design and delivery of the projects. Because of this I knew that each of our Middle East clients were fully on board and committed to the delivery approaches, and this contributed to a feeling of psychological safety.
- There was also a high level of psychological safety built into the professional relationship the facilitators enjoyed with Cranfield. I felt that there was clarity around the client relationship, and the client expectations, and my responsibilities to both Cranfield and the client were clear. All of this enabled us to be free to truly facilitate the learning and respond to the needs of each cohort and each module. Cranfield also set up Whatsapp groups so that they, along with all the facilitators, could quickly share learning ideas, hints and tips as the programme was rolling out. The short “talking head” videos we shared with each other after every module (and sometimes in the middle of modules when programmes were running simultaneously!) were invaluable in helping us to collectively raise our game and give the participants great learning experiences.
If you are thinking about working in the Middle East, then as a woman I would absolutely encourage you to embrace the opportunity, leave your preconceptions at home, and thoroughly enjoy the experience. For me I have been enriched by the experience.
I have found a new vigour in working with the tough question – “How do we create collaborative spaces in work and learning, which enable us to learn from our differences, rather than try and prove that our way is the best way?”
I am fascinated by the way that we interpret values such as freedom, integrity, compassion or stewardship. I am constantly wondering if we can find a meaning which captures the lived differences that enables all groups to contribute and flourish. Working in the Middle East was, and still is, an amazing catalyst to my thinking around those questions. We have so much we can learn from each other. My journey of discovery has not ended.
About the Author
Jane Senior is a Cranfield Associate who is a specialist in leadership development with extensive experience of working with senior leaders across global organisations including Peugeot, Barclays, Qatar Petroleum.