1st UAE women leaders summit focuses on empowerment, education, tech

‘Digital transformation has created an equal workplace’ for both sexes, says edtech guru Divya Gokulnath on the first day of the MENA conference chaired by The Media Line CEO Felice Friedson.

 Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line, delivering the opening remarks at the Women Leaders Summit in Dubai, Nov. 2, 2022. (photo credit: Omnia Al Desoukie)
Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line, delivering the opening remarks at the Women Leaders Summit in Dubai, Nov. 2, 2022.
(photo credit: Omnia Al Desoukie)

Women in the workplace are rethinking how they function within a global market that has seen massive changes, with more women relying on technology and switching jobs to secure better conditions for themselves. This was the message that resounded Wednesday on the opening day of the Women Leaders Summit in Dubai.

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The summit, an inaugural conference staged by Verve Management, focuses on elevating women in the workplace, bringing together female leaders to share their stories, struggles, and journeys to success in order to enlighten and inspire the next generation.

The speakers comprise a distinct group of women from multiple fields in the region, all leaders in their chosen disciplines.

“Today we women vote, and we lead corporations: The Middle East of today is not the desert our forefathers left us.”

Felice Friedson

“Today we women vote, and we lead corporations: The Middle East of today is not the desert our forefathers left us,” said Friedson as she opened the summit.

“Many countries in the Middle East are turning the pages of history and finding ways to incorporate women in the workplace. They have run the numbers, and guess what? Companies with women in leading roles lead the way to the bank,” she said.

Coronavirus & Israeli Tech (credit: JERUSALEM POST)Coronavirus & Israeli Tech (credit: JERUSALEM POST)

Technology has freed women and given female entrepreneurs more opportunity

One of the central issues raised at the summit was the way in which technology has freed women from the confines of employment and allowed them to establish their own businesses.

“Technology can connect women entrepreneurs to major markets at the click of a button,” said Divya Gokulnath, co-founder of Indian edtech company Byju’s and one of the speakers at the two-day summit.

“A lot of decisions should not be based on numbers but also intuition and feelings,” Gokulnath told the audience as she related her journey to starting her own company.

Byju’s began in the Indian market and now is expanding internationally. “Agility is most important,” she said.

“Technology brings flexibility in the workplace. And now women can harness the technology to start up anywhere. Digital transformation has created an equal workplace for both men and women, where, irrespective of gender, you can see it as an opportunity,” Gokulnath told the Media Line.

That digital inclusion, said Dania Daoud, a senior director at Credit Suisse AG, is a critical catalyst for boosting women’s participation in financial issues.

“Financial access is available to both genders yet there are more divides” in the Gulf, said Daoud during a session titled “Women’s financial inclusion: a pathway to economic empowerment.”

“Women at a very young age don’t get to be involved in decision-making and are not aware of the financial world,” she said.

“The culture that we live in stops women from having the interest and the passion to understand more about their own personal finances, family finances and making financial decisions.”

According to Kate Baker, chief HR futurist at the Neom smart city being built in Saudi Arabia, a McKinsey & Company study shows that women are no longer settling for what they have been given in the workplace.

The study found that just 20% of C-suite leaders are women, while 20% are happier when they can decide how and when they work.

“Women now understand the power of their entrepreneurial nature. Women entrepreneurs are the force of the future with the opportunities that are being presented,” said Linda Fitz-Alan, registrar and chief executive of ADGM Courts, part of the Abu Dhabi Global Market international financial center, on why women are leaving employment to start their own ventures.

However, for some, that comes at a cost. Sharing their experiences on starting a business, some panelists at the summit said it can be a lonely process and even affect a person’s well-being, with the pressure of how to make money.

Emirati entrepreneur Salama Mohamed, CEO and founder of Peacefull Skincare, started her cosmetics company to cater for the weather in the Gulf. She told the summit that she lost her close network as she was setting up her business and is still struggling to break even.

“It is not only knowing how to make the money but also how to use it and invest,” said Emirati banker Shada El Borno, managing director at Standard Chartered Bank, during a panel discussion titled “Changing the narrative, women in decision-making roles in the MENA region.”

El Borno said, however, that investment in women-led ventures is in the early stages both within the region and in other parts of the world.

“Why is it that women don’t believe in themselves to make their own decisions?” echoed Daoud, asking why women shouldn’t look for financial literacy programs so that they can make their own financial decisions.

“The question is not making money but maintaining wealth, how do you monetize knowledge,” she said.

The world needs more women entrepreneurs who know their rights to ensure that they are part of the leadership within their workforce, according to the members of the “Changing the narrative” panel.

“So far, within CNN we have 42% of leadership [positions] that are actually run and taken by women. Even in the UAE, we have almost 100 people working CNN and the mother company, and both of them are actually led by women,” said Caroline Faraj, vice president and editor-in-chief at CNN Arabic during the panel discussion.

“We are happy with the number, but we are not satisfied; we need to do more,” she said.

Faraj also focused on the importance of telling the stories of the women of the region, so that the younger generation can learn from those who came before.