By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Most parents hope their children will do better and go further than they did. It is a human response. Hoping and doing, however, can be two different things. Those parents who actively encourage their children’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge give their offspring an edge their contemporaries do not enjoy. For daughters, such support can be the difference between fulfilling their dreams and settling into a mundane life, with the haunting question of what could have been forever hanging over them.
For Huda Ghoson, director of human resources policies and planning at oil giant Saudi Aramco, it was her mother’s determination that made the difference. “My parents, whose education was limited to elementary school, realized that the most important thing in life — that would guarantee a prosperous and successful future — was a good education,” Ghoson says. “My mother was a very active woman around charitable societies in Riyadh, and well known for extending her time and resources to help the needy. She was a very strong woman and determined that we all get a good education, especially the girls. She wanted us to be independent, confident and responsible for our choices in life.”
Born in Iraq to Saudi parents, Ghoson spent her childhood in Kuwait before the family moved back to Riyadh in 1970. She said her mother’s early commitment to her continues to shape her career. “My mother was very influential in my decision to work for Saudi Aramco,” she says. “In fact, I do not think I would have been where I am today if it was not for my mother. Upon my graduation from King Saud University in 1980, my mother helped me explore the job market, which at that time provided very limited choices for women, for appropriate career opportunities that will nurture my aspiration and ambitions. She decided that the best work environment for me would be in Saudi Aramco. She was the one who encouraged me to join the company.”
It appears to have been wise advice as the company soon helped her continue her education. “In 1981, I began a career with Saudi Aramco,” she says. “In 1984, I took leave from work and traveled to the US to earn a master’s degree in business administration from the American University in Washington DC. I graduated in 1986 and returned to work for Saudi Aramco.”
She said the climate of the 1970s dissuaded her from her original career plans. “I wanted to study in an area related to engineering or sciences as my studies during my high school years were focused on math and science,” she says. “However, women did not have access to these fields of studies at the university level at that time, so I had to settle with English literature as I also enjoyed arts, poetry and writing. However, I had no idea what I would be doing with my degree after graduation, and there were limited opportunities for women in the job market.”
As a human resources professional, Ghoson has some interesting insights about the barriers obstructing working women. “One of the greatest obstacles facing women is prejudice, which is extremely difficult to tackle as it can be deeply ingrained in the workplace and organization culture,” she says.
“Although many companies nowadays want to enable more of their very capable women to succeed and get to the top, they do not recognize the micro-inequalities and the subtle forces of prejudice and so eradicate them. With the absence of leadership, conviction and visible action you just do not get traction.”
Another major obstacle, she says, is the “difficulty of tapping into informal networks, getting mentorship or an advocate.”
Ghoson sees that some women also face obstacles that stem from the culture they live in. “In traditional societies, women’s roles are often stereotyped. Family responsibilities are not shared and are assumed to be solely a female duty. Balancing work and family life poses a great challenge. Lack of family support is another reason why we do not see too many women in leadership positions,” she says.
She is confident that the Kingdom is on the right path both for reform and economic prosperity.
“I see Saudi Arabia as a robust and progressive country with a highly educated, modern and resilient society contributing to the global economy and the betterment of humankind. Saudi Arabia will play a major role in the economic and political stability of not only the region but the whole world. Saudi Arabia already plays a key role in supplying the world of much of the needed energy for economic prosperity and advancement,” she says. “The process of progress is slow, but it is sure, genuine and pragmatic. It is important to recognize that modern demands for instant solutions and results may not always be sensible and could antagonize traditional societies, and shatter their fragile economies. To ensure continuous progress and long-term impact, we should instead celebrate small steps and be sensitive to local culture and values.”
Ghoson thinks that governments should do more to level the playing field for women. “The fact that women do not always participate in the decision-making process to address gender issues and assure equal rights, responsibility and opportunity is a major barrier to women’s participation in the workplace,” she asserts. “Support should come from the top of the pyramid to make our economies and societies inclusive instead of exclusive.” For her the solution is obvious: “Women should have an equal role and participate in legislative and executive decisions related to the economy, society, education, and affairs of the state.”
But if change is to succeed, it requires more than government action, Ghoson says. All society has to be involved. It makes sense. “Societies that practice gender inequality tend to have a slow economic growth and larger population living in poverty. Women constitute half of the population. Ignoring them is like trying to run the race with one leg,” she says. From there stems part of her confidence. “We are witnessing an awakening in governments and business communities in the region. They realize that 50 percent of the skills, talents and potential of their populations have been ignored and neglected.”
Marginalizing women’s roles and power “is costing our young economies dearly”, she says. It is “incapacitating and inhibiting our ability to compete in a rapidly changing global environment.”
For her, the private and public sectors have “no choice” but to empower women and provide them with job opportunities and better choices if they want to reap the benefits of their contributions and productivity in the local markets. It is inevitable. “I see women playing major roles in the advancement of our societies, progress of our economies and the reform of our education systems,” she says.
Ghoson has some advice for young people, male as well as female, wondering which career path to take. “To succeed in a competitive world, young professionals need to establish order and discipline at the beginning of their career to help them focus on items of substance. They should take time to develop their technical knowledge and understand the business of their organizations,” she counsels. “They need to pursue continuous self-development and be willing to venture into new territories. They should take the time to observe before acting and not to be discouraged or disheartened by setbacks and failures. They should learn from past mistakes, and stick through the tough learning period. Sometimes the best teachers are the negative experiences.”