A World Away

2001-2006 Jeddah  (1)

Based on an interview with Patricia Myers. Pat spent almost ten years working in the Middle East in talent management, organizational development and as Head of Talent Management for National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia.

I grew up in the 1960s, in rural NY, on a farm; I picked fruits in the orchard and worked in the gardens. To this day, in many ways, I feel I am a hard-working farm girl who happens to live in a big city. My grandparents were Italian immigrants who worked hard to reestablish their lives. Some people looked down on them because they were immigrants and spoke with an accent. I think that’s part of the reason they never taught us Italian because they wanted us to speak perfect English and be indisputable Americans.

After college, I enjoyed a long corporate career, and at 50 I moved to Saudi Arabia as my husband accepted a banking position there. Once we moved, I experienced for the first time what it feels like to be a foreigner and a minority, and I could imagine what my grandparents must have felt. We left the U.S. two years before 9/11, and the Middle East we arrived at in 1999 was a very different world than the one we left nearly ten years later.

Oh, many things surprised me; some were expected (the covering, not being allowed to drive, difficulty in finding a job, etc.) and some were unexpected. What surprised me the most was the unspoken caste system in Saudi Arabia. In that system, Western and the Middle East ex-pats were treated very well, but other foreign workers were treated very poorly. And per your nationality, you were permanently pigeonholed to certain professions. For example, if you were Pakistani, you were pretty much a driver, and if you were Filipino, you were usually a nanny or a housekeeper.

There seemed no way out of that caste system, regardless of how bright or enterprising you are. You can rarely move into another profession based on talent.  Our driver was a Pakistani man; he had little formal schooling but was brilliant. He had handled all the banking for the family he previously worked for. If he were in the U.S., he probably would have been a very successful entrepreneur. He loved America and dreamed of coming one day, but when 9/11occured, he knew his chances, however small before, were gone completely. It was a somber day.

In 1999, women were not even permitted to walk into the corporate headquarters, little alone work there

The landscape for professional women improved during the years I was there. When my husband first joined the bank in 1999, women were not even permitted to walk into the corporate headquarters, little alone work there. But four years later, the bank employed over 40 women at the head office. In 2003, I became the Talent Management Director at the bank. God has a wonderful way of using all your experiences for good.  I began my career in 1972, in the midst of the women’s rights movement, and lessons from that period helped prepare me for coaching Saudi women, many entering the workplace for the first time, a workplace that severely limited women in the past.

The 1970s was not an easy time to be a female leader. If you were successful, people speculated you slept your way to the top. People thought a woman could not possibly be a manager by her own merits. As there wasn’t a generation of female leaders before us, we did not have many role models to follow, and the few senior women who were in the workplace didn’t always treat us well. Sexual harassment was tiresomely familiar; we were told to be strong and to “deal with it.” Double standards were the norm. Thinking back, I can laugh now at some of the tactics we used to protect ourselves. I use to make deals with the bartenders so that they would hold the gin whenever I ordered a gin and tonic.

I was always the youngest and the first woman in the job, and I felt I needed to continuously prove myself. I held very high expectations for myself and others; I drove people hard in pursuit of perfection and often placed undue stress on others. It wasn’t until my early thirties that a mentor helped me see that relationships are about building bridges and not burning them, regardless of the quest for quality. What we produce is important, but what we give to our friends, family, and co-workers are far more important. I brought those lessons with me to the women I coached and now, in mentoring for 4word.

just because we vacation in Paris, doesn’t mean we know France

During my time in the Middle East, I saw women’s rights in the workplace make progress slowly – two steps forward, one-step back. It was similar to what I experienced in the 1970s. We would have a few amazing months where men learned to work with us, and even worked for women. Then the Mutawa (the religious police) would raid the building and insist that the women could not ride the elevator with men, among other things.

The first morning after we were raided, I got on the service elevator and rode up with the garbage bags in the corner. The Saudi women hugged me and began to cry. I gave them my “we are doing this for your daughters” speech. I held myself together until I got off the elevator. Then I went into my office, pulled the drape, and cried. But the steps forward were awesome. Several of “my ladies” (that’s what we called our women) are now in senior positions at banks across the Middle East.

I realized after living overseas, just because we vacation in Paris, doesn’t mean we know France. Once you immerse yourself in another culture, you recognize that people, even people you think are so different from you, are very much alike. We share many of the same struggles and same hopes. If you are willing to open your heart and mind, you will find there are far more similarities amongst people than differences. And you will find lifelong friends whom you love deeply – and who love you.

Pat M.

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