Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Business Woman 101

Every once in a while I decide to post an article that I've written and has been published somewhere. I wrote this in 2006 but it seems that there is still quite a requirement for information on the subject (slutty dressers!)

I picked up a copy of the Khaleej Times the other day (again, this was 2006) and skimmed through the articles. I wasn’t really paying attention to headlines, but I hadn’t been able to make reservations at the Beach Rotana Hotel in Abu Dhabi as it was fully booked, so when their name was mentioned as hosting the 2006 Middle East and North African Businesswomen’s Summit, I stopped to read the article.

The headline read, “Hotels Curry Favour with Businesswomen” – which really has nothing to do with much of anything (I read it several times and have concluded that they are saying that hotels spice things up with businesswomen). The article basically says that the businesswomen enjoy the hotel services of food, hair styling, and make-up. It mentions nothing of what topics were covered in the Summit, nor their relation to the business world. It is a brief article which was written by two men and provides insight by an “overworked” hotel coiffeur.

As someone easily provoked (in various ways), this got me to thinking of my experiences throughout the past ten-plus years with businesswomen in the Gulf Region; with all the various prejudices and detriments. I remember coming to Kuwait in 1996, and being told by the company I was to work for that the highest title that I, as a woman, could hope to gain with them was “Secretary”. As a then technical writer (which is often looked upon as an administrative job in the Middle East), it didn’t really matter to me as long as my work and salary was commensurate with what I had in the States - I wanted to work in Kuwait regardless. Soon after I was hired, the company began hiring more professional women to fill slots; it was a matter of supply and demand. Many women competing for the same jobs as men were more qualified, or the jobs required females (such as IT work at Islamic banking institutes where men and women work in different offices).

In 1996, the women I worked with were (sadly to say) mainly only interested in recipes and discussions of children and their personal lives. Personal calls, audible chats in the office, and “water-cooler” gatherings were common. Personal lives were wrongfully brought into the workplace. The same women later wondered why they didn’t receive the promotions or incremental raises that they should have been given: “They knew my whole life story and they used it against me.” They should never have known your personal life to begin with and yes – it will work against you.

The necessity for women to work has never been more prevalent. The women mentioned above would probably have preferred to be stay-at-home mothers, but their situations demanded that they work and they obviously wanted to achieve better incomes. More women are joining the workforce in the Middle East as economic dynamics have changed: The rate of divorce continues to rise and many women must provide for their children (divorce laws in many countries including Kuwait are outdated and often not looked at on a case-by-case basis). Prices continue to rise and most families need a second income. Of course, women are also becoming increasingly empowered by education, driving them to careers (and salaries) of their choice.

Women (regardless of nationality or economic standing) must maintain a high level of professionalism in the workplace to get anywhere. We are competing for the same jobs at the same salaries as men. We need to be taken seriously and not perceived as out-of-place housewives in a competitive work environment. It is even more important in this region, as gender prejudice is prominent. Many men (and unfortunately, some women as well) believe that women are not equal to men in the workforce (I actually worked with a woman who firmly believed that we should be entitled to at least one day off per month as sick leave for cramps - and wanted to discuss it with executive-level management). Women often have to work harder than men to be accepted and therefore, appearances are everything. We can not allow ourselves to be perceived as weak. We must put up a strong exterior and demand (not ask for) respect.

My mother was a journalist competing in a predominantly male business. My sister and I were never allowed to call her at work. For absolute emergencies, our nannies were allowed to call, but they would only have received a short, curt response from my mother before the conversation was over. She left her personal life at home. Men have children too, but they spend less time conversing with them from work than women do. Constant conversations with or about children can be perceived as weakness or detrimental to the job at hand. An employee is at work to do the work. Personal life starts when the work day stops. Thankfully, it has become a lot easier to discreetly keep in touch with the family or friends from work through the use of technology (e-mail, SMSing, Child Locator systems, etc.).

Perceived weakness can come through many different mediums. For example: the way a woman dresses; how much make-up, jewelry or perfume she wears; if she is chewing gum; how her hair is done; her tone of voice; and her demeanor. The same applies to men (hopefully without the make-up). There are appropriate measures for each in the business world. Business people should wear modest business attire. Business people should keep jewelry and perfume to a minimum. Business people should never openly cry or get emotionally provoked. Business people should conduct their conversations and dealings in a professional manner and tone. And (regardless how you really feel or what your situation is) business people should command with a confident professional attitude. A confident attitude extends to firm handshakes and direct eye contact as well: a limp handshake and eyes searching a room do not convey a solid business message.

Girly-women – regardless of how cute they think they are - who are overly flirtatious, giggle and wear revealing or over-the-top (this includes leopard print, metallic, flowery, or shiny) clothing rarely make it to the top of the corporate ladder. Office drama won’t make a woman more interesting and management will only think that she is frivolous and lacking in substance or character. The choice of wearing revealing or tight clothing to work is a definitive no-no. The same applies for the wearing of clicky-sounding high-heeled shoes and/or too much make up, and gum chewing. While the managers may smile as these (usually) young ladies walk past, it is always a question of “are they laughing with you or at you”? The appearance implies that the woman is at the workplace for other reasons than actual work; perhaps a good maneuver for short term (non-work-related) gratification, but in the long-run, flirty-girl tactics - which might work well in a coffee shop - won’t do anything positive for a professional career in a work environment.

One of my first jobs was in a designer clothing section at a large retail store chain. My supervisor was Mrs. Kathleen Stellock and I will never forget her. She wore black most of the time (simple black, navy, beige, brown are usually the norm with business attire – steer clear of flowery patterns and limit pastels) with wonderful accessories (good quality handbag, good quality shoes, modest jewelry that didn’t make any noise). She wore little make-up and her hair was always done modestly. She walked tall with a straight back. I wanted to engage her in personal conversations (so she would get to know me/like me better and think I was wonderfully interesting) and discuss what I did that weekend (probably while chewing gum with chipped nail polish on my fingers and a big 80’s hairstyle above whatever disco outfit was the trend back then.). She would respond with, “Mmm hmmm,” and walk away. I thought she was a total B. She turned out to be one of my very best female mentors and I never knew it at the time (she probably couldn’t stand me). She never came out and said, “Do this,” or “Do that,” but taught me subtly - just by performing her job with 100% professionalism; both through actions and through appearance.

My personal life is none of anyone else’s business, but occasionally marital status is an invitation for pre-conceived notions. I wear a wedding band to work, as do many of my other female friends – regardless of if we are married or not (I don’t even fill in the marital status section of employment forms). People don’t know if we are married or not and that is the whole intention: Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. The band conveys a stable family life (although we might be out partying till dawn with other single female friends who are making big salaries too!). It also extends a “don’t even try to flirt with me” message to those less professional than I am at work.

Methods of business appearance are nothing new. They have been around forever. There have been books written and movies made on these subjects and courses and seminars are conducted. It all depends on how you wish to be perceived and the impression you wish to portray. Appearances do matter, they are important, and you never get a second chance to give a good first impression.

As women, it is up to us as individuals to convey the message we want to get across. We are our own best marketers. As professionals to be taken seriously, we must conduct ourselves in accepted norms in the business world. We will never be perceived as equal unless we do something to command equality. It is okay to be provoked by an article in which two people perceived women to be frivolous (“curry”) at a business summit. Perhaps we, as women, can provide a different impression. Maybe the prejudices and detriments we face can be eradicated through education and our collective behavior. Collectively, we may be able to enlighten people who think we are all about food, cosmetics, and hair.


7aneen said...

Interesting,, A very very good read. I enjoyed it and secretly didn't want it to end.

Anonymous said...

Very good article but many a times specially when you are not working in a position where the management can access you positively and the immediate management expects you to be a added decoration instead of added value, these tips dont work. They think of you just like what you thought of your 90s female boss.. Nevertheless, all depends on your beliefs and the road you wish to travel... Frankly, delighted to know someone believes into all this in the middle of the desert....