As deputy CEO of Dubai Media and the youngest member of the United Arab Emirates parliament, Najla Al-Awadhi has quickly risen to prime leadership positions in a society that is still largely male-dominated. A graduate of the University of New Hampshire in the United States, she has been outspoken about women’s rights, and advocates a progressive yet culturally relevant media. In an e-mail interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Al-Awadhi talks about her own role models, why it’s still hard for women in the Middle East to break out of traditional gender roles, and what advice she would give the next generation of women business leaders in the region.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the principal barriers that women face in rising to senior executive positions in the Middle East? How did you overcome them in your case?

Najla Al-Awadhi: I believe the key challenges facing women in this area stem, at a macro level, from the negative or limited perceptions that exist in a male-dominated [society] about a woman’s overall abilities, particularly in the public domain. At a micro level, I believe the challenges begin in our homes. They begin with how we raise our children, since gender roles are taught to children from a young age. The dominant trend is not to raise daughters to think like leaders and drivers of change or progress; girls are nurtured primarily to think of marriage, children, or [of working in] specific industries like education and medicine. They are not raised to be bold leaders. Boys are primarily raised to see women in the same light. 

These gender roles transcend the home and become part of the social practices that girls and boys carry with them once they become adults. I was blessed to have parents who are very progressive, so gender was never an issue in my upbringing. I was taught that I have the same rights and responsibilities as my brothers, and that the core values to human progress were strong morals, faith, education, vision, determination and a solid work ethic. I carried these principles with me throughout my career. In addition, our government in the UAE has created many opportunities for women, so I had access to opportunities and was given the chance to prove myself. 

Knowledge at Wharton: You graduated from the University of New Hampshire [in the United States]. How difficult was it for you to adjust to the business environment of the Middle East? 

Al-Awadhi: It was not difficult at all, because I am from the Middle East, so I understand my society’s culture. Of course, it is not always easy to bring back best practices from other countries — in this case, from the U.S. — and just apply them at work. This takes time, because you need to address the issue of mindsets, and sell the idea of change and progress. You need to prove to people that things can be done better and that the results will be in their interest. 

Knowledge at Wharton: How did you become interested in media? 

Al-Awadhi: I have always been interested in helping my society and my region. I have always been interested in advancing the rights of Arab/Muslim women, as part of my belief in human rights, so I knew that awareness — or the lack thereof — was at the heart of [many] issues. I also understood that mass media represents a powerful platform to create that awareness, and that’s why I decided on media. 

Knowledge at Wharton: As you advanced in your career, who were your role models?

Al-Awadhi: In terms of my work ethic, my role model is [Prime Minister and vice president of the UAE] Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He has a will of steel; he has great vision; he empowers his people; he has the courage to take action and try new things that others deem impossible, which is why Dubai has become an international hub — and he is very humble. My parents have also been role models for me; they are so progressive in their way of thinking. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it were not for the way they raised me.

I also admire the wife of the prophet Mohammad, Khadija the great. While she lived more than 1,400 years ago, as an Arab and Muslim woman she was revolutionary for her time. In fact, in many ways, she is revolutionary even in our time. Her rebellious, wise and driven spirit has always inspired me.

Knowledge at Wharton: How is the oil-price decline affecting the media business in the region? Have there been any cutbacks, either in print or television, as we see happening in the West? 

Al-Awadhi: We live in a global world, so I believe all industries are now making corrections and working on doing things better to meet the challenges of the market. We have not had to cut back or lay off employees in our company.

Knowledge at Wharton: What would you say is your biggest business challenge, day-to-day?

Al-Awadhi: Strategically developing human capital in an institutionalized way, and diversifying sources of income. We need to continuously work to make our operation more efficient, people centric and value driven.

Knowledge at Wharton: How would you compare the media environment in the UAE to what you have experienced elsewhere? What’s on your to-do list as a top priority?

Al-Awadhi: I don’t like to compare, because every society is at a different stage of development. [The media environment in the UAE] has unique needs, and the media reflect that. We always look at best practices and work to adopt suitable practices. Original productions and developing the Emirates’ human capital are at the top of my list of priorities. 

Knowledge at Wharton: In your columns, you have been quite outspoken in defense of women’s rights, encouraging women to hold political office, have a successful career, etc. How would you frame the issue of women’s rights in the UAE and in the Gulf region as a whole? In your view, are there significant differences between what women see as their “rights” there versus in the West? 

Al-Awadhi: We don’t look at the Western model as what we want to emulate. Yes, we want to learn from the experiences of every society and their best practices, but we are developing our rights according to what we believe is appropriate for our society. The Gulf region is not a monolith, so women’s rights vary from country to country. I say without hesitation that women in the UAE in terms of their rights have become a model for the region. This does not mean that we as women in the Emirates have achieved our targets, but we are certainly moving forward without hesitation.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is on your agenda for the Federal National Council? If there is one thing you would like to accomplish during your term, what would it be? 

Al-Awadhi: In our four-year term, I would like to ensure that we strongly represent the issues [that are] critical to our people. I am especially focused on the areas that fall under the committee I am [on], which covers education, media, youth and culture.

Knowledge at Wharton: You were on the Human Right Committee in college: Are you continuing to work on Human Rights issues, and if so, what in particular?

Al-Awadhi:  I believe through my work in media and parliament, when I can create awareness about critical issues facing us as people — [perhaps] through the production of programs that address [those issues], or through parliament debates — I believe that this is a humble contribution toward empowering people through information. This contributes to creating a more educated and active populace, which is critical to the advancement and maintenance of human rights.  

Knowledge at Wharton: How important is work-life balance to you? How do you define it and achieve it for yourself? 

Al-Awadhi: It is critical to balance everything and unhealthy not to. I believe in defining in your heart and mind what is important in your life and what will still be important in your life 40 years from now, and then prioritizing based on that. After you have done that, the rest is all about solid time and task management. 

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you do outside of work? 

Al-Awadhi: I spend lots of quality time with family, and I also do a lot of reading. I [go to the] gym, [and do] pilates, yoga and outdoor sporting activities. I also spend time writing, and designing abayas (women’s robes).

Knowledge at Wharton: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in business in the Middle East?

Al-Awadhi: When you start your career, don’t think about job titles or pay. Focus on being in an industry that you are passionate about; on learning as much as possible; and on working harder than anyone else. It is only when you challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone that you truly grow. Always respect yourself, and respect others — from the CEO to the garbage collector. Humility and self-respect are critical; these attributes contribute to the creation of healthy corporate cultures. 

Be diplomatic. Never give up. Always think positively. Be solution driven. Empower good people, and be a team player. Do not allow yourself to be defined by your gender; you can do whatever you set your mind to. Forget the word “impossible.” Have a vision for where you want to be in your life, and set a practical plan to get there. Always review this plan to make sure you are moving closer to your targets. Be flexible, because you will face challenges. This is where positive thinking always becomes the force that drives you forward and makes you see the challenges as opportunities.