by Tina Olivero

    Women Working in Arabia

    “I raise up my voice, not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”  ― Malala Yousafzai

    These words ring out around the world as women request equality in education, in work, and in life. Things are changing.  Globalization is happening.  Equality is on the way in and it’s the new normal. But we still have work to do.

    What’s the difference between equality and cultural discourse?

    Equality is not to be confused with or measured against cultural discourse. They are not the same yet we seem to have mixed them together without realizing its implications.  The result of a lack of understanding of the differences leads to separation, a lack of progress, and sometimes sadly, even war.  Here we hope to dispell the disparity between these important terms and bring understanding to the global considerations of a multicultural world.

    Cultural discourse is one’s general make up based on the culture he or she were raised in. Cultural discourse is comprised of education, geography, sex, age, religion, politics, family values, life experiences, and a multitude of other considerations.  Each cultural anomaly influences our perspective, makes us who we are and shapes how we operate in the world.  Equality, on the other hand, is a comparative of the environment where one is compared to be equal or not equal to another.  Equality can be measured in education, wages, jobs, gender, and many other quantifiable factors.

    Where the success equation breaks down in terms of global collaboration and effectiveness, is when society equates cultural discourse with equality and it comes up short. Subject to interpretation the two concepts are not the same.  Here’s why. Everyone faces different challenges in their roles because of cultural disparity and that is never more evident for technical engineers working in the oil patch abroad – especially for women. Coming from a limited set of variables within our own cultural discourse, we automatically assume that because someone’s culture is different than our own, that it is often wrong. We also assume that because she is a woman she is not able or allowed. But is it true?  These perspectives need to be considered when working abroad and evaluating cultural discourse with equality.

    What you see in most mainstream public media about life in the Middle East, for women, is not reality. It says more about the media than the actual culture it tries to describe.  Most often it is misinformed sensationalism that is angled in such a way that it drives viewership and engagement.  There’s nothing like drama to draw a crowd.  Other times it is simple misunderstanding because cultures vary so widely that one culture can’t understand the other.  Rather than seek to understand we seek to judge and separation occurs.

    Two women working in the Middle East

    The unconcealed truth of what it’s like to work in the Middle East as a woman is revealed here. This story takes a first-hand experience with two women as they share what it’s “really” like working in the desert in an entirely different culture.

    History has shown us time and time again that the people of the world don’t get anywhere by rejecting other cultures. We create progress, synergy and success through collaboration and understanding. These are the virtues that the oil and gas industry has been built on and it’s also what has made it the greatest multinational industry in the world. 

    We have world energy today primarily because we were able to work together and embrace differing perspectives. As pioneers of globalization, the oil and gas industry, along with advances in technology, have united the world in energy like no other commodity on the planet. Wise woman Shannon L. Alder said, “Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.”  This wisdom alone is enough to open the gateways of global collaboration.

    Ana Cuellar and Kathleen Conley are both engineers working for Netherlands company, Hint Global. Hint provides high-quality Engineering & Plant-IT solutions fit for purpose.  Ana and Kathleen have the opportunity to showcase their area’s of expertise in an Arab nation.  Like most outside of the Arab culture, they had preconceived notions about working there. But it wasn’t until they actually did it, that they could accurately describe the experience.

    What brings you to the Middle East?

    Ana says, “At Hint Global we work for many companies in the Middle East in areas like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Every two months I’m in Saudi Arabia working on a comprehensive long-term project. What I found working in the Middle East overall, was that things have actually gone far better than expected.  There are many differences, however, this doesn’t make them wrong, it just makes them different. For example, specifically in Saudi Arabia, there are many rules, and the rules were not always clear to us from the start. It’s taken time for us to learn and to adapt.  For example, as a woman working in Saudi Arabia, you may not sit in the front seat of a car. But you also may not sit in the back seat next to someone you are not related to. So really there is no other option but to break the rules and do one or the other. Sometimes, that makes it difficult to travel by car. And there are other factors. In some places, you cannot go out on the streets as a woman. There are limitations. Sometimes you need to be escorted. So most often we stay in the hotel as much as possible. Fortunately, there are hotels with a gym for women and a private beach for women. There are benefits.”

    What’s the dress code?

    The dress code is also a consideration for us in the Middle East. Kathleen says, “In Saudi Arabia we have to wear an Abaya when we go outside.  An Abaya is a long black dress often accompanied by a Hijab or head covering. However within our offices, it is not necessary to wear the local attire so one of the challenges we have, is constantly changing from Abaya to our own clothes. To dispel a common myth, we do not usually wear headscarves as it is not compulsory for non-Muslim women.”

     Ana describes the Abaya as problematic in other ways, “The main disadvantage for me, is that I’m not used to wearing an Abaya and I find it very hot. It can reach 40 C degrees or warmer here, and it’s not comfortable for me, walking around completely covered.”

    What’s it like dealing with Arab companies?

    “The business cooperation with companies in the Arab countries is almost always good. Our clients are international companies with many people from Europe, the US or Asia. It’s a multinational experience and we work with a lot of different cultures and take them into consideration in our work lives. We do have cultural considerations in business to deal with. For example, one of the things we bump into is hand shaking. It’s always a mystery. Some men do not shake your hand because you are a woman. Not because they do not want to, but it is not culturally accepted. So we learn to adapt.  We never gave a hand first and we wait for the man to offer us his hand. In large companies this sometimes leads to awkward situations where one shakes your hand but the other does not. It’s funny because sometimes it seems that they are also confused.” said Ana.

    Ana says, “I found it particularly fun to experience the cultural differences. Every encounter is a surprise. How do people greet you? Will they shake your hand or not? I noticed that over time people get use to the idea of working with a woman. Operators we met, in the beginning, seemed to have some coping problems, but if you have a whole day hanging out with them, you end up touching on each other’s cultures. We work with Westerners, Arabs, Indians and with so many different cultures there is always plenty to talk about.”

    How do Arabs treat foreigners?

    The typical Arab culture is big on hospitality. Ana describes her work trips, “Very soon after I began working with Hint Global in the Middle East, I went with Kathleen to Oman for a consulting project. We were working with an oil producer, carrying out a study of a SCADA system. We also traveled to Muscat to meet with other engineers and visited a number of oil sites. We got a glimpse of the whole oil extraction process all the way to the separation process, metering and to transportation.  This all took place in the desert over the course of five hours driving through the sand and extreme heat. Once completed we arrived at a camp where we stayed for a few days. We were lucky that we were women because it entailed certain privileges. We got our own ‘suite’ and did not have to share with anyone. It was incredible, we were the first women to have ever spent the night in the desert at that spot! The highlight of our trip was perhaps the barbecue in the desert sitting on a rug on the sand. Arab hospitality is premium, and you would not expect it in such a place. It was very clear they wanted us to feel really welcome.”

    Are you treated differently on the job?

    Ana and Kathleen are pretty unique in the region, being female engineers surrounded by men in the oil and gas industry. They sometimes feel in the minority and other times it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Each circumstance is different. Kathleen describes the interactions on the job, “I did a lot of physical, technical work in the past. Sometimes I received negative reactions because others would feel like the work wasn’t suitable for a woman. But it can also go the other way with colleagues wanting to offer more help than usual, which can be annoying because they do things for you that you can do yourself.” 

    Ana says it’s a matter of proving yourself, “The skeptical positions that you may encounter in the beginning often just disappears when you show them that you can do good work. Sometimes, though, it does actually come down to having to work harder to prove yourself as a woman at first.  If you do make a mistake it can be made to be more significant than if a man made it. But I do not blame people if they find it difficult to imagine a woman in a technical profession. If you lived your entire life seeing women in traditional roles it can also be a bit shocking for them to see us in these roles. The reality is, everyone has to adjust their perspectives to get the job done and that’s a really good thing.”

    Do you believe there should be more women in engineering roles in the Middle East?

    Ana wants to emphasize that as a technical woman being in contact with men is certainly an advantage, “Yes, more women should be in engineering roles in the Middle East.  As a woman, I have the opportunity to develop better contact with my customers. If we know each other, a relaxed atmosphere can happen and this fosters a good business environment. I think women break the ice more easily than men, and women they often excel and achieve more, by being personal. When you need to obtain information from your client in order to progress a project you can be personable and you can be direct. And you can usually get the answers you are looking for because they don’t want to fight with a woman.”

    Kathleen believes that “Overall, no group should be excluded from a particular field because there can always be talent within it. This applies not only to women but to all people.”

    Women of the world

    What’s clear about women working in a male-dominated oil and gas industry, in the Middle East, is that cultural perspectives vary. It’s never the cultural variances that cause issues it’s always what people do with them. When people are open, adaptable, accepting and understanding, collaboration happens. When they are not business breaks down, and in extreme situations, wars of the world happen.  This can teach us a lot about who we need to be in the world to progress.

    Kofi Annan of the UN said, “The United Nations whose membership comprises almost all the states in the world, is founded on the principle of the equal worth of every human being.”  And so it is.

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