As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, we learn from women in business as NYU Abu Dhabi kickstarted its accelerator programme which collaborated with the US Embassy to celebrate inspiring women.

AWE is a US global initiative started with the aim to empower women worldwide in order to fulfill their economic potential keeping in mind a target of reaching 50 million women by 2025 to reduce barriers with their participation in the economy while startAD in Abu Dhabi is a global accelerator in launching technological startups, providing solutions.


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Emirates Woman spoke to three powerful on how they succeeded in male-dominated roles, Zehra Vahavanty, part of the Economic Attaché; Lauren Willy from the Cultural Affairs Attaché; and Hana Barakat, the Associate Director of startAD.

Hana Barakat, Associate Director of startAD

Hana Barakat

Can you tell us about a role model who has inspired you through your career path?

My role model is my mother. She has inspired me on a personal and professional level. She taught me that nothing can stand in our way; to be strong and resilient and to believe in oneself and never underestimate the potential we have. Whatever career choices I took, she backed me up and supported me all the way. I would have not been here if it wasn’t for her guidance, support and care.

What progress have you seen on gender equality in your life and work?

I have been working in the Middle East for 20 years and in my first few jobs, the female presence was almost nonexistent. I never thought that one day I will be working in an institution where gender equality is at the top of their agenda and where many women hold leadership roles. The progress has been phenomenal and I am privileged to be a part of the social transformation that’s taking place.

Why do we need more of women in leadership?

Women are extremely empathetic and resilient by nature and in today’s volatile world these are key drivers to the sustainability of a business and a country. Gender equality in leadership is very important; it creates a balance in decision-making and strategic thinking.

What’s your International Women’s Day message?

Embrace and celebrate your womanhood every day!

Have you noticed a growth in women entrepreneurs over the last few years?

There is definitely a noticeable growth in women entrepreneurs over the last few years across all age groups. The pandemic has encouraged many of the female university students to think creatively and solve pressing problems while studying remotely. This has been reflected in our university-focused programs where in the last two years half of the participants in the cohort were female compared to about 25 to 30 per cent, four years ago. The rise of female entrepreneurs-focused programs such as the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs amongst many others, is a testament to the fact that more and more women are adopting the entrepreneurial mindset, becoming less risk-averse and paving the way for setting up and running a successful business.

How have you managed to scale startAD since its inception?

We have adopted a human centered approach by listening to the entrepreneurs and the ecosystems’ needs. It is all about creating impact, both at a business and national level. The startAD team is devoted to this cause. We consider every team member a leader, as we all
share the same vision and each one of us brings in unique knowledge and expertise.

Lauren Willy – Cultural Affairs Attache, United States Embassy in Abu Dhabi

Lauren Willy

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in your field?

Choosing to be a diplomat is a choice to blaze new trails for women in diplomacy and to serve as a role model for the next generation. There are very few women diplomatic leaders, and it’s not easy to be the “odd man out” in any context. Any woman who chooses to work in diplomacy will face challenges associated with the gender imbalances that exist because of the longstanding conviction that public and professional space belongs to men. The World Wars forced society to reconsider this definition, but nearly a 100 years later, the world still struggles to achieve the kind of diversity that makes us stronger. My advice to women who choose to work, and who choose to pursue careers in male-dominated fields, is this: Make your choice to work a choice to take on this challenge, a choice to value diverse perspectives, and a choice to define a better, more inclusive future for both your daughters and your sons. Being aware of these challenges from the start will empower you to overcome them.

What progress have you seen on gender equality in your life and work?

Women have improved the way that they treat one another. When I first started working, my female colleagues were hard on each other participating in a cut-throat competition instead of collaborating and cooperating. Women believed that if you wanted to survive, you had to be perfect and outperform all your colleagues. I’ve seen a major shift in that attitude. Women are now supporting each other and helping one another so that we can all be the best that we can be.

Why do we need more women in leadership?

We need more women in leadership because we need more diversity in leadership. Diverse perspectives allow us to define better solutions–whether we are combatting a global pandemic, developing products for markets, or trying to figure out how to educate our children.

What challenges did you face as a woman diplomat and how did you overcome them?

The U.S. diplomatic service is expeditionary. We move every two to four years. I am a single woman, and most of our support structures are geared toward keeping the families of male officers whose wives stay home and take care of their children together and safe. The service offers no support for single people or single women. I overcome this by creating my own support structures and defining my own happiness. It’s not ideal, and it’s not fair, but that’s life.

What’s your International Women’s Day message?

As a diplomat, I am lucky to be offered opportunities within my work to promote gender balance and take advantage of diversity. The U.S. Mission is committed to promoting strength in diversity, and International Women’s Day is a time for us to reflect on our progress, to reaffirm our commitment to gender balance and to celebrate our partnership with the UAE. The UAE has set an inspiring example when it comes to promoting female leadership, and the U.S. is grateful for our UAE partnership as we work together to ensure diversity for confronting global challenges. The AWE UAE program specifically has been a great initiative where we have been able to work with women of myriad backgrounds and strengths, all of them powering the growth of their communities through their businesses.

What are the most effective ways to counteract the negative stereotypes of women in the workplace?

Women need to show up, and leaders need to include them and appreciate them when they do.

Zehra Vahavanty, Economic Attaché, United States Embassy in Abu Dhabi

Zehra Vahavanty

What advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in your field?

The best advice I can give, no matter what career you are pursuing, is to believe in yourself, put yourself out there, and persist. Breaking boundaries is really tough, but in countries such as the United States and the United Arab Emirates there are now more female college graduates than male. Women have worked their way up to leadership positions in fields across the spectrum, from the government to entrepreneurship, engineering to space exploration. Opportunities abound, but we have to be willing to take some risks, to speak up, and put ourselves forward to be recognized. I have seen this grit and tenacity first-hand with the incredible participants in the U.S. Embassy-sponsored UAE Academy of Women Entrepreneurs program. These women showed dedication to getting to know like-minded women in their communities, developing their skills, and adapting their businesses to overcome the most challenging of circumstances during the COVID pandemic. It is in these difficult times that having a solid network demonstrates its value. So, as you are working your way to the top of your field- encourage one another. If you make your way to a leadership position, mentor the other women in your organization and allow their creativity and abilities to be put to good use. Remember, you earned your place at the table, so be confident and inspire other women to do the same.

What progress have you seen on gender equality in your life and work?

The increasing number of women who are in historically male-dominated fields, leadership roles in government, business and society is an important measure of progress. As women inhabit more senior positions social norms and expectations change. I have seen this profound generational shift through the eyes of my teenage daughters. They have grown up knowing women can do anything, and they expect to see women leaders around them. They see gender equity as essential and while they understand that things are not yet equal, they expect them to be, and they are not willing to accept less. I am excited to see the changes this generation of young women bring about as they break down barriers that women of my generation have not yet overcome.

Why do we need more of women in leadership?

Women are half of the global population but hold less than one fifth of positions in national governments, a meager 9.4% of board directorships and only 20% of senior management positions globally. We need to change this, because women bring a different perspective and have unique strengths in relationship building and problem solving. Women in leadership roles show all those who follow them that women can play a valuable role in all levels of all fields. And when we do have diversity of thought and diversity of leadership styles, we are all better off.

What were some of the key lessons you learned working in the legal field?

The law plays an important role in ensuring that the hard-fought progress of generations of women who cleared the path before us to enable our current opportunities is institutionalized. But for me personally, the most important thing I learned while working in the field was the necessity of keeping my priorities straight. As a young female lawyer working in a large corporate firm, I had to learn quickly how to navigate a stressful career in a male-dominated profession. I had worked hard through law school and landed a job in a prestigious practice, but the work took over and left no time and space for anything else in my life. I determined early on that I wanted to be defined by more than just what I did for a living. I strove to achieve professionally while also raising a family and having a full life. It is not easy finding a balance, and I firmly believe that women should not have to choose between a fulfilling profession or family life.

What’s your International Women’s Day message?

Women belong in all places where decisions are being made…It shouldn’t be that women are the exception. – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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