This week included International Women’s Day. It had the stated purpose, “Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world – a more inclusive, gender equal world.” This reminded me of the time that I worked as a female engineer in Abu Dhabi, UAE for one year. The most frequently asked question that I get about my time in Abu Dhabi, by far, is what it is like to work there as a female? We’ve heard so much about the lack of women’s rights in Muslim countries, that this is a natural curiosity. My answer was to play down the repression of working women in the UAE. The fact is, for me, working in Abu Dhabi wasn’t all that different from working in the US as a female in male-dominated engineering. (In some ways, women are better off in Abu Dhabi, but that is a different post). Working in engineering, I am accustomed to being a minority and the stereotype that comes with it. But a complete answer deserves a wider discussion.
Let me give you a bit of background. The population of Abu Dhabi is 75% immigrant, predominantly from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. These men and women drive the service sectors. They are taxi drivers, waitresses and cooks, hotel staff, retail staff, and construction workers. The least skilled of these workers live in camps and work long hours in the hot desert (and being on the Gulf, also unbearably humid as well). Discussion of these working and living conditions in Abu Dhabi deserves a separate post. Yet, it is important to note that worldwide exposure and discussion of this has changed it for the better.
And then there are the white immigrants from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia who work professional jobs. Included in this group are Indian engineering staff. The staff that I worked with was largely Indian. Some of these engineers were experienced and highly capable leaders. Like women in engineering, they haven’t cracked into company leadership, a club reserved for white men. Here lies the rest of the answer to the original question. Racial inequality is more noticeable in Abu Dhabi than women’s inequality. It would be easier for me to break into leadership there than a non-white male engineer because I am white. It isn’t easy for me, but it is much harder for them.
Equality must include everyone. YES, we must talk about the female workers who deserve equal pay and equal opportunity. YES, we must nurture female students to explore STEM fields if they show interest. AND YES, we must mentor female professionals so they can reach their full potential. Let’s broaden the discussion to the changing role of all men in this society. We must teach our boys that his responsibility at home is equal to a woman’s. Further, a man’s choice to provide full-time care at home must be socially acceptable. But let’s also admit that we are far behind in the fight for racial equality.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day Call to Action, #BeBoldforChange, I call on us to be aware of women’s inequality and racial inequality.