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Manal Al Bayat, VP of engagement at Expo 2020 Dubai, on the status of Arab women

Manal Al Bayat, VP of engagement at Expo 2020 Dubai, on the status of Arab women

The authors of Game Changers speak to Manal Al Bayat, principal at Headstart Consultancy and vice president of engagement, Expo 2020 Dubai


Manal Al Bayat has more than 16 years of experience working in areas that range from audit and financial controls to foreign exchange, money markets and derivatives. She also has experience in establishing, structuring and managing start-up companies and currently heads a management consultancy focusing on assisting organisations with their strategy, growth and human capital management.

She is passionate about developing and empowering human resources and influencing the way companies manage their human capital and holds an MBA from DePaul University as well as a bachelor’s degree in organisational leadership from Purdue University.

Are you content with your life? What else are you aspiring for now that you have already accomplished so much?

“While I am happy with what has been accomplished to date, I believe there is a lot more that can be done. As long as there are people entering the market on a regular basis, and as long as some people still struggle with limitations and obstacles, there is more work to be done. Support needs to be given, knowledge shared and guidance offered.”

Tell me about your career choice and path. Did you always know you would do what you are doing? Did you study for it, plan for it or was it accidental?

“There is a gap between what you learn in school and the real world. When I first entered university, I thought I knew what I wanted to do career-wise. However, a couple of years in, I realised that perception and reality did not necessarily overlap. So I decided to enter the workforce early and that is when I realised that my passion is in human capital and organisational development. Ever since, I have used that as the backbone to everything I do.”

Did you face any setbacks? How did you overcome them?

“I am lucky because I have had a supportive and understanding family. They were not always pleased with my decisions, especially when I had to travel a lot or had to work away from home. However, they have always supported my decisions as long as those decisions made me happy. They also believed in me, and what I can achieve. Their support and confidence helped me overcome everything else.”

As a very successful and internationally recognised woman, what do you consider the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of your job?

“The most challenging aspect is also the most enjoyable for me and that is juggling multiple tasks simultaneously. Trying to achieve objectives, grow the business, empower staff, enable your workforce, and coordinate with and manage your board and stakeholders is an enjoyable and challenging task at the same time.”

What is your personal leadership style and philosophy for success?

“Give credit where credit is due, give support where it is needed, and be honest with yourself and others. Be positive and highlight achievements. Leading is all about understanding who your followers are, what their needs are and how to motivate them to get their best output. It is also about knowing where you are going and how to navigate. As long as you have vision and focus and take care of your team, you will succeed.”

Did you ever have a mentor? What role did they play?

“A former male boss gave me a great piece of advice that stuck with me for life. He asked me if I was going to apply for a more senior role in the organisation we were in. I told him that I had wanted to but did not possess the minimum requirements for the posted role. He told me that I should never let requirements stop me if I believe that I am the right person for the role and would do a good job at it. I applied for the role with his encouragement and I did get the promotion. He also taught me how to handle challenges at work and to not allow business matters to affect me personally. He gave me excellent advice at a crucial stage in my career, which ended up being a great turning point for me.”

How do you see the current status of Arab women as opposed to 30 years ago? How do you see it evolving?

“A lot more Arab women are in the workforce today as opposed to 30 years ago. A lot more women hold dual roles as career women and housewives and mothers. Women have also entered many more sectors than they did in the past. However, there is still a long way to go. Arab societies need to continue to build support mechanisms to enable women to continue with their dual roles, which will in turn benefit society as a whole.”

What are the biggest challenges facing female leaders today regionally and/or globally?

“It goes back to the balance and the fact that you can never really fully focus on your career and your family at the same time. The biggest challenge is that the expectation on mothers is different from that on fathers. A father who works an 80-hour week can still be regarded as a good father. However, a mother would never be judged using the same scale. Therefore, the biggest challenge is within us.”

How did you break into what many consider to be an old boy network?

“It may sound clichéd but the truth is that it was with hard work and perseverance. You have to put in the time and give it your all. You have to know your area of work and own it. I think the business world today is a lot more accepting of female leaders. It also recognises their achievements more. However, to an extent, you still have the boys’ club and that is something that I do not foresee changing any time soon. Due to the fact that the percentage of male leaders is higher than female leaders, it is easier for men to socialise outside the office and some of those gatherings are difficult for a woman to be part of because of the nature of our society.”

Why is it important for companies to invest specifically in women’s leadership?

“Many women choose to be present in the lives of their children and not rely solely on domestic help. That is a positive thing because that working mother is a huge positive influence on the children she is raising. Those children are our future workforce. Therefore, it is a cycle that you have to nourish and feed to get the right outcome in the end. Finding solutions that assist women in their leadership roles, and giving them some level of flexibility enabling them to also focus on their families will result positively for both the company and society as a whole.”

What advice would you give your 14 year old self?

“The world is a tough place. You will find people of both genders who will oppose you. Do not let that stop you. Arm yourself with knowledge and determination and surround yourself with positive people.”

What does the word feminism mean to you?

“For some reason, the word feminism seems to come with a negative connotation to me. Perhaps that is because some words that end in ‘ism’ are negative—racism, sexism, vandalism. However, replace feminism with female empowerment. That, to me, is removing obstacles in a woman’s way to enable her to achieve her true potential. That is something that society as a whole and the corporate world need to work together on.”

Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at all good retail outlets and


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