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Women of Influence

Zoe Karali, Shaikha Tareef, Nouf Al Suwaidi, Noora Al Nusuf, Dalal Abdulla, Alaa Al Hamad

The number of women in senior roles in the banking industry is on the rise. Bahrain’s home-grown talent is getting local and global recognition. How can women further push the boundaries? We speak to high-ranking women of Standard Chartered Bank — Bahrain. 

It was announced last month that Shaikha Tareef was appointed the new chief financial officer of Standard Chartered Bank in Bahrain. Not only is this a flagship role, it is the first time a Bahraini woman has filled it. What does it take for a woman to climb the career ladder in Bahrain?

Zoe Karali, Shaikha Tareef, Nouf Al Suwaidi, Noora Al Nusuf, Dalal Abdulla, Alaa Al Hamad

The role of education
One of the foundations to a successful career is a solid educational background. The notion of education has been disputed within a gender context in the past, but it seems women are at the forefront now. The country head of financial crime compliance at the bank, Alaa Al Hamad, says that her family insisted on education because she is a woman.

“I was raised to believe that education is the pillar for a good future. We were focused on this; my father made sure that my sisters and I had the best education,” Alaa says.

Similarly, Nouf Al Suwaidi, senior relationship manager of human resources, was brought up to value education.
“I think it has to do with the way our parents were brought up. Back then, women weren’t given the same opportunities as men. Perhaps they felt that opportunities would be handed to my brothers, which is why they put me in a private school,” Nouf adds.

Noora Al Nusuf, country head of corporate affairs, brand and marketing, says, “I think it’s all about how families view the role of women. There was a discussion in the past about whether women are their own enemy. To a certain extent, we could be because it’s what we teach our kids. We can teach our sons to respect women and that the role of women is important. It all starts at home.”

West vs Middle East
Having had experience in both the UK and Bahrain, Shaikha has never felt the effects of discrimination in either country. Gender equality has been on the agenda in the West for decades; the presence of female empowerment in Bahrain is catching up.

“I have never been told that I can’t do something because I am a woman,” she says. “The government stresses on the empowerment of women. You’ll find seminars taking place to increase the participation of women in both public and private bodies.”

Greek expatriate Zoe Karali, who is the country head of legal and compliance at Standard Chartered Bank, felt accepted immediately upon arrival eight years ago.

“I had never lived in the Middle East, but I felt comfortable as soon as I got here. There are capable women in senior positions in local and international banks in Bahrain. Coming from Europe, this is something that needs to be promoted outside the region,” Zoe says.

Support System
Throughout their journey to the top, Standard Chartered Bank has supported these women in accomplishing their goals.

“One of the main pillars is diversity and inclusion at the bank. Sometimes women can be complacent, but if you really push for what you want, you can get it. The reaction I get from people about me working in this position is one of amazement because I am a woman in an international bank,” says Nouf.

“It’s all about how professional and engaging you are. I don’t think gender matters. Since I started working here and throughout my career, people really appreciate how the bank has promoted women. They value the way the bank runs its activities and strategies for women,” adds Dalal Abdulla, head of distribution — head of branches.

Passing on the torch
This inclusion of women doesn’t just speak to the ethics of Standard Chartered Bank. Both local and international banks in Bahrain embrace women taking a pioneering leap to the top. How can women improve their confidence and ability to do so? Would a mentoring programme suffice?

“Mentoring is one thing; it’s formal. Stories of successful women help inspire women. When my promotion was announced, women were saying that it is great news and that they know they can be in such a position too. It shows that if you work hard, you can get these strong roles,” says Shaika.

“The government mentors women through the Supreme Council for Women. They host activities and the annual competition for the Shaikha Sabeeka Award. The nomination process is so rigorous. It is taken very seriously,” adds Alaa.

“I was reading about organisations that have a high percentage of women in senior positions and how they have better shareholder returns as a result. I was proud to read that. When shareholder value has something to do with it, you know women are doing it right,” says Zoe.

Pieces of advice
In order to launch yourself into a fruitful career, the women of Standard Chartered Bank put success down to flexibility, goals and patience.

Dalal: “Always look forward. Set a goal beyond the goal.”
Zoe: “You need to be patient. It took me 10 years to be head of a department, but I needed those 10 years. You can have a lot of knowledge and qualifications, but experience is what makes you step back and have a good view of everything you have acquired. Don’t rush. Take it step by step — it’s a process.”

Shaikha: “You need to be flexible. During life there are lots of hurdles; be adaptable and take on change.”

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Patricia Kabalaoui

Mind, Body and Spirit

December 2014: Write Here Write Now