Q&A: Maria Manzoor: “It’s time for women leaders to become the norm”

Author: Kirsty Tuxford | Date: 01 Jun 2016

Ramboll's head of HR discusses mentoring young professional females in the Middle East

Maria ManzoorMore women than ever are entering the GCC workforce, according to a new study: research by B20 Employment Taskforce and AT Kearney has discovered that since 1993 the average number of women in employment has increased by a third.

And, AT Kearney’s recent regional study on ‘power women’ in Saudi Arabia concludes that women are feeling more motivated to pursue a career. People Management spoke to female mentoring specialist, Maria Manzoor, head of HR at design and engineering firm Ramboll about the challenges working women face in the region.

Is there a negative perception of women in senior positions?
There have been positive developments in the realm of women in senior positions. A number of notable pioneering women have shown the world, and the younger GCC generation, that women can lead – even in the Gulf. I think the time is now for the next step: moving from the pioneers to a state where women leaders are the norm.

That is not to say there aren’t still challenges: family, social pressures, the biases regarding women in leadership and the workplace, limited opportunities for women to network and build relationships with mentors in their organisations, and a lack of supporting infrastructure. Leaders need to function as catalysts and actively commit to promote gender diversity and develop women-focused leadership programmes to propel this progress further.

Ramboll is in the engineering and design sector. What specific challenges do females face in this industry?
As with all organisations in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries there are historically fewer women who climb the career ladder. However, I think this has also changed in recent years and we now see many ambitious young women who are forging ahead in the engineering sector.

A common challenge women face is not being able to promote themselves as they feel less confident in being able to assert their accomplishments. While women need to be advised that self-promotion is crucial, organisations should also do more to help women highlight their achievements.

What is the essence of your mentoring strategy?
I help young professional women focus on their potential and strengths, and to become more self-confident. Each mentor/mentee relationship is tailored to suit the mentee’s needs. It could be once each week or once a month, and the sessions last around one to three hours depending on the topic of discussion. I like to work in an interactive way, where we brainstorm and look at different options and scenarios. There will be moments of counselling; however that is not the overall style of mentoring. It’s more about breaking down personal boundaries, fear, misconceptions and self-doubts, coupled with presenting the mentee with different perspectives and new approaches, and enjoying the support and confidentiality of a mentor.

Do you notice a difference in confidence, motivation or ambition between women from different cultures?
Generally I do not notice any difference between cultures. What I do notice is that people from some cultures are more open to being mentored than others, but I think that is also a perception that is changing. In the past it was perhaps perceived as weak for a woman from this region to ask for external help, while it is now seen as a great way to fast-track your career and transform your life.