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Guest

A Woman In a Man’s Sand Castle

By: Guest | August 29, 2011 | 
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Today’s post is written by Ameena Falchetto.

My experience as an entrepreneur in Dubai was largely affected by two factors.

First, I am half-Egyptian, half-English which means I am often discounted by both cultures.

Secondly, the company I built with John Falchetto was one of the most male-dominated businesses out there; we provided safety and rescue training for government and corporations.

Hard hats, work boots, and lipstick

As you can imagine, there was nothing glamorous about working in the safety industry. In short, we gave people the tools to, hopefully, not kill themselves. Pitching for new business often entailed showing pictures of site disasters and tragedies.

I’d arrive at the site office in a hard hat and work boots to meet with the managers, only to be asked if they could meet with the manager of the company.

They couldn’t fathom that could be me. I wish I could say the prejudice came from people who didn’t know better. But I can’t: They were often from the U.S., U.K., Europe, or the rest of the so-called equal opportunity world.

Cultural Differences vs. Prejudices

Our clients ranged from police rescue departments to construction companies to multi-national corporations. When I went with John to meet with the police, I’d be offered tea and asked to wait in the reception whilst the “men talked business.” I always respected the clarity in the relationship because I understood their culture, and I chose my battles. This is one I wouldn’t win.  

Where’s the man?

Surprisingly, being a woman and doing business with the multi-nationals might have been the greatest challenge. In this environment, meetings were a disease. The boardroom fascination was a way many justified their jobs. I’d get raised eyebrows when I arrived alone for a meeting with six people. Where was the rest of my team? Where, more importantly, was the man?

Male clients would often request to speak to “my boss,” of course meaning, “the man,” only to be shocked when I reminded them that the “boss” was actually me.

And it wasn’t any easier working with female clients. Often, they were more intent on speaking to “the man” than my male clients. They would attempt to bully me to get what they wanted. There were times when an issue could be easily resolved by phone or email yet they would summon me to their offices, keeping the subject of the meeting ambiguous. They assumed that if I gave them face time, I would change my mind.

Educating them was a challenge. When all else failed I’d just fire the client. Sometimes life is too short to work with a client who is painful.

Women Doing Business In a Global Economy

Working as a female entrepreneur in the male-dominated Middle East taught me the importance of being true to myself. Remember, being a woman is not a disadvantage.

My advice? I have four tips:

  1. Command respect and demand to be taken seriously.
  2. Respect cultural differences and resist trying to fight them.
  3. Dont try to be a man or pretend to be someone else. Be you.
  4. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to fire your client.

Have you worked in a male-dominated environment? What would you add?

Ameena Falchetto is a recovering marketing manager from a multi-national in Dubai and a serial entrepreneur currently living in the South of France. She works with people who want to grow their businesses abroad and has just launched her personal site. She also writes about the challenges of being a new mother abroad on her blog MummyinProvence.

49 comments
Anthony1
Anthony1

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Hajra
Hajra

Hey Ameena,

I can so relate. I am working with 15 men in a team and they simply can't take me seriously! Yes, they think I am too immature to be around and just because I throw in jokes here and there, they think I am " not serious" about work. And sorry to burst the bubble, but I live in the Middle East and not one person out of the 15 is an Arab or remotely one! I ain't getting into their nationalities and starting a battle here but I think it has more to do with the male - female battle than anything else. Also, even besides that there is actual conflict over accents, style of working and loads of personal clashes. Sometime I wonder about the team spirit... where did that go/

There might be cultural differences but ignorance is the reason I feel; knowledge of other cultures and learning more about the cultural differences is more relevant!

I wish I could fire them, I can't; we are a "team"!

MSchechter
MSchechter

Know what I love, that the four action steps really work for anyone, man or woman. It sucks and it is stupid that you had to deal with that, but thankfully (at least in the world I play in) there is less and less and less of this with every passing year.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Well, you know how I feel about this conversation. But I think your story of not being able to get a business license without John is just astounding. We don't realize how good we have it in the free world. I'm pretty sure I'd be arrested for talking back in the Middle East. Or maybe they'd cut out my tongue? Thanks for sharing your story. AND ... I love the photo.

bdorman264
bdorman264

I knew it; I thought I saw you walking like and Egyptian when we Skyped..........:).

I concur, most meetings are a disease especially if they are run poorly.

Not only being a woman, but the culture and prevailing thought in the country where you are working. You have to stay the course because it will take 'staying power' to validate your legitimacy. The longer you can hang around the more credibility it will bring. But you definitely have to be able to 'fire' the client and have walk away power. It might cost some dollars early but in the end it will show you are serious about what you do. It will allow you to keep these meetings on a peer to peer level.

Good one MiP and great to see you at Gini and Lisa's.

marianne.worley
marianne.worley

Hi Ameena,

Love this post. I've always worked in marketing communications, which tends (at least in my experience) to be dominated by women. But I've felt those stings of discrimination when I make certain purchases, like car tires or power tools. My Dad was a carpenter, so I learned those skills early on, and I like doing home improvement projects. But if I go into a store and ask to see a tile saw, I usually get an eye-roll from the (male) clerk. The stereotypes are still there, but we're making slow progress.

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

I wish i had had your tips when I was selling Jeeps fresh out of college! That's right, Jeeps. Actually, I had no business doing that, so even your tips couldn't have helped. I have no interest in cars and my lack of knowledge was all too apparent. But I love your story, and thank you for sharing it here.

Brankica
Brankica

OMG, this brings back memories, lol. I was the only girl in a spec. police unit. It didn't help me that the very first day in the unit I beat a few of the most egoistic men in shooting practice. They tried to break me and my spirit all the time, they created problems for me where there were no problems. But I won :) After a few years, when it was almost unbearable to work with some of them, I was promoted. And then I left, when I felt it was time to do it (when I moved to USA). So I can relate to this and it really annoys me, how some men are the same in every country.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

We have a few things in common, Ameena! I am half Persian and half American. You wonder why I never married. I lived in Iran a long time as a kid, about 7 years, and returned in 1976 for the last time.

I went on business to Abu Dhabi, and was frustrated with the situation of the man/woman thing. I impatiently sat by as the men conducted themselves, and then decided with an f-bomb exasperation to take matters into my own hands.

I began calling all the English-language dailies and pitching them the story that the U.S. was in town -- a reputable Chicago medical center was in the Emirates to consider international patient relations and launching a regional endeavor, blah, blah. I placed front-page stories and scored interviews for my team while there and took home hits that never would've happened had I sat back and waited for the men to act.

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

Somebody get @jennwhinnem some smelling salts!

I can relate and so many levels here, Ameena! But first, let me say, great guest post and story telling to make your points. I loved it. I worked in real estate development for over 6 years and was often the PM on a site. I would go from meeting with the investors to making sure the subcontractors were doing what they were supposed to do, with muck boots and hard hat in tow.

To say I had to earn their respect was an understatement; but I did. I know how to read plans, talk about lumber and deliveries with the suppliers and could run 'rough shod' on site when OSHA standards were in violation. It also helped that my Spanish was much better at that time!

Go, @Ameena Falchetto , Go!

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

Hi Armeena - thanks for telling this story. I'm an outspoken feminist and I don't know that I could have handled this with the grace and aplomb that you appeared too. I honestly feel like I need to lie down just reading this, and I think anyone who has read my comments anywhere knows that I mean this!

I struggle with respecting culture vs. respecting myself. Being asked to drink tea while business went on - okay I feel the need to lie down again.

Thanks for pushing through to the other side. The worst I've dealt with were some male bosses who thought I was just a clever girl.

KDillabough
KDillabough

In my early twenties, I was the youngest president of a national sport governing body in a world dominated by men over the age of 60. Your point about understanding their cultures and choosing your battles is so wise. I learned early on which battles to pick. In many cases, I knew I wasn't going to change a dinosaur mentality towards women in this position (I also call this the knuckles-dragging-on-the-ground mentality, which I also experienced in later years as an athletic trainer in lacrosse and hockey). I educated where I could, and accepted with grace that which I couldn't. I stayed true to myself, never felt the need to grow a set, and respected the fact that, both culturally and demographically, I wasn't going to change some things. My objective was always to get the work done. Although it was challenging, and sometimes hurtful at the time, it was one of the best educations I've ever had, and taught me patience, tolerance and empathy, and made me strong. Cheers! Kaarina

Marcus_Sheridan
Marcus_Sheridan

I'm a male working in a female dominated workplace-- my home. ;-) (Hey, a wife and 3 daughters will humble any man!)

Way cool story Ameena. Loved your 4 actions steps at the bottom. Awesomeness.

Keep rockin,

Marcus

Erin F.
Erin F.

I worked in a hardware store for several months. I had to rely on the third option a lot because there was no way I could ever learn all the minute differences between certain drill bits or blades. I think that experience, more than anything, taught me that it was alright to say, "I don't know." I then quickly followed that statement with the fact that I would find the answer for the person asking a question.

Yael Rozencwajg
Yael Rozencwajg

Awesome post.

I really like your story Ameena, it's clearly reflecting the lack of evolution in most of world industrial companies. Women have to be more preventive, more impressive, more pragmatic than men to be noticed and even respected.

The anchors of the main boundaries we can encounter by these times are because cultures and mindset are effortless and keep on comparing the differences between people instead of combining the fondamental junctions ... All is not about "females" and "males".

Men environments are everywhere, even in companies that promote products for women (see some great brands) ... I definitely think that women have to disrupt the systems and change their global behaviors to help themselves and then the whole world. The revolution has already started, why not pursuing and encourage the future to be a better true place for all ?

John Falchetto
John Falchetto

As I mentioned to @howie housemusic I believe women have a tougher time in the West. It sounds ironic that in a society were women are given many more rights they also experience many more challenges.

From the corporate world to working for yourself I have seen many women, work hard to prove themselves capable to managers or clients who didn't have half their business acumen or brains.

Sometimes when we take things for granted, we end up hurting them, something which is happening in the West to women's rights in the business world.

autumnmthompson
autumnmthompson

I worked in the motorcycle industry for about eight years. Same thing....."you're cute and all but I want to talk to the guy who really knows about bikes". It taught me to never assume and how many people make assumptions. Working in a male dominated environment makes you want to know more, study harder and be the absolute best. So, I think if you look past the exterior (talking to a woman) you will find a knowledgeable person.

KenMueller
KenMueller

i love this, and particularly #3. We can all learn from this, not just women. Thanks, Ameena!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@MSchechter What doesn't kill you makes you stronger (and prone to sarcasm) .. I am sure you relate.

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@ginidietrich Nah. You'd be fine. They'd call your husband and ask him to control his wife. Yes, they do that.

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@bdorman264 Hey, thought you knew I wasn't a pure blood! I could write a book on the number of meetings we went to - it was ridiculous! Not sure about how long you have to hang around in typically expat markets to be honest. Most of the people I worked with were very transient to say the least. Was quite frustrating at times! Glad you liked the post!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@marianne.worley Thank you Marianne. Gotta love it when you go into a store and ask knowledgeably for something that is considered to be a "boys toy" ... yes stereotypes are there - I usually roll with it ... we can't change them but we can work around them.

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@Lisa Gerber Selling Jeeps? The things we do eh?

My tips came from experience. I have a lot of stories BEFORE I came to these conclusions. There were times I would lock myself in the bathrooms and cry because of the way I was treated by male colleagues - I'd cry out of sheer frustration that they were so stupid and sexist. Dealing with vicious rumours was also part of the game. It was one of the main reasons I went solo.

Hajra
Hajra

@Brankica Men are the same in every country - that should be made as an anthem for female revolutionary groups! ;)

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@Brankica Men are men, where ever they are! I love the fact that you kicked their butts. You rock!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@EricaAllison Thanks Erica!!! Glad you enjoyed it! It does suck that we have to know our stuff 10 x better than the guy in certain industries but when you know it and demonstrate that I found people quickly shut up and listened.

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

@EricaAllison I worked in real estate development for four years! on the marketing side,. but we had a female PM and I thought she rocked. She exuded self confidence and no BS. We'd tour sites in hard hats and she hung with the boys and they respected her. This kind of experience is invaluable; especially for entrepreneurs, but for everyone.

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@jennwhinnem Thanks! Yeah, being treated like a clever girl or just a nice piece of skirt that was sent by the "boss" made my blood boil. I did quickly use it my advantage with some of the idiots I encountered. Being sweet and flattering the chauvinists did eventually get the results. I consider myself to be a feminist and I do use my femininity as a pretty powerful weapon!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@KDillabough Thanks for sharing such an awesome story!

Accepting that you can't change the attitudes of certain male dominated industries makes you find other ways to make a difference. Personally I feel that women can add certain emotions and attitudes which can enhance productivity and get the job done.

When we come up against such attitudes thinking of ways around it to get the task at hand completed can definitely provide an interesting insight and perspective!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@Erin F. thanks for sharing, Yes, being honest and being true to yourself is important. Most people will respect your honesty especially if you proactively seek the solution and answer for them.

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@Yael Rozencwajg Exactly. It's the cultural differences that are usually much easier to overcome. Here's to being as fabulous as we can be!

Ameena Gorton
Ameena Gorton

@autumnmthompson That's so true. I did have to really make sure I knew my stuff. Often people would try to catch me out too.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Ameena Falchetto @John Falchetto at first I was surprised by the Economist data but then remembered most Parliaments in the world have more women as a percentage than the US does.

Obviously there are still obstacles just to living in general depending on the culture and their general views towards women.

The good news is as men learn their lesson in humility as the ladies slowly take over the world, thus priming the population for my alien's to invade. With the men subdued a few dozen roses and some Vuve Clicquot and maybe a rave party or three should pacify the ladies and boom....I become the benevolent dictator of Earth.

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