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Pushing the Boundaries

Single mum and fiercely independent career woman, Shayma Amin has been nominated as Kuwait’s representative at the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters in Vienna. The self-made Kuwaiti shares her journey with us.

Shayma Amin has always known her mind. This straight-talking 33-year-old comes from a family of strong-minded women, each remarkable in her own way.

After finishing high school, Shayma was awarded a full scholarship to study petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, a five-year programme which she completed in three and half years.

At 22, she joined the Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company (KUFPEC), a subsidiary of Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) as petroleum engineer before moving to the company’s international desk as business analyst in charge of business development.

Shayma is now Kuwait’s national representative at the OPEC secretariat in Vienna, a post that confers on her a diplomatic status. We caught up with her as she readied her bags for her new assignment.

Woman This Month (WTM): How do you perceive yourself?
Shayma Amin (SA): I’m a very stubborn person and I use that to my advantage. Whenever I’ve been told that I cannot do something, I’ve reached out and accomplished that very thing. I’m very competitive and function well under pressure. I believe in speaking my mind.

WTM: What made you opt for petroleum engineering? Do you think you’ve accomplished what you set out to achieve?
SA: I was 11 years old when the Kuwait War happened and as we were flying over my country, all I could see through the window was burning oil fields. It was a sight I would never forget.
Later, I started telling my family that I would do something to revive the oil fields in my country when I grew up. Fortunately, the more people doubted me, the more determined I was to prove myself.
I’m very proud to be where I am today; it just proves that there are no limitations. Women tend to mentally impose limitations on themselves.

WTM: How do you keep yourself motivated?
SA: I’m a person who needs constant challenges and new experiences. Despite having the technical skills at KUFPEC, I opted for an international role, which involved networking and dealing with people abroad. This is because I’ve never enjoyed being in a comfort zone. In any event, women have to work twice as hard as men in order to be taken seriously in the oil and gas industry.

WTM: Who was your role model as a child?
SA: At home, it was my mother, who brought up three children single-handedly after my father’s passing. She taught us that we didn’t need a man to take care of us and that education was our main weapon in life.

Also, my aunt Qamriya Amin is stronger than any man I know. She heralded the women’s rights movement in Kuwait in her own way back in the 1960s, before anyone in the region had heard of it. She was a motivational speaker and started the Girl Scouts in Kuwait. She lost her husband, three brothers and son in quick succession and then was diagnosed with cancer, but she fought back every misfortune.

WTM: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
SA: On the career front, the challenge was to prove myself in a male-dominated work sphere, regardless of my youth and gender. The initial years were difficult but luckily the job involved a lot of travelling and dealing with foreigners. I made the best of what I had.

On the personal front, I was married at 17 and I have a six-year old boy. Given my travel schedule, the challenge is to spend quality time with my son and make him aware of the importance of what I do so that he understands my commitment to him and my job.

WTM: Do you think gender stereotypes are finally beginning to fade in your country?
SA: Let’s say it’s a work in progress. Kuwaiti women are doing very well as entrepreneurs. On the career front, things are gradually looking up for women, as their participation in the workforce rises. Ultimately, it all depends on how motivated a woman is and how badly she wants to succeed. You need to be thick-skinned and you should be intent on proving yourself.

WTM: What does it take for a woman to break the glass ceiling in the Arab world?
SA: First of all, you need loads of self confidence and self-belief. Secondly, you can’t excel at something you don’t feel strongly about. So listen to your inner voice and do what truly inspires you. You must pursue your passion rather than opt for a profession that’s considered prestigious, well paid or culturally acceptable.

WTM: What do you consider your single biggest achievement?
SA: As a working mother, I don’t believe in being scarred by guilt for the time I spend at work, away from my son. At a very young age I’ve made him understand what I do, why I do it and why my work is important to me. My son is now very proud of me and he respects me as a mother and as a career woman.

WTM: What is your ultimate dream in life?
SA: I want to touch more lives by mentoring young girls and women. I’d like to be more active in the public sphere, but I’m aware that I will need to polish my Arabic speaking skills to make that happen!

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Crossing Frontiers

October 2013: Write Here Write Now