Reem Althawadi

  • Degree Programme: Executive MBA Dubai
  • Global Nationality: Emirati

Navigating unconscious biases

Do women hold other women to higher account than they do men? Do female leaders expect more from women than men in their teams? Might this stem from their own experience of pushing themselves harder to achieve success than their male counterparts?

Reem Althawadi (EMBA Dubai 2016) ponders issues like these in her position as Senior Manager with PwC for Hong Kong and China, giving her yet another perspective to culture and gender issues. Based in Shanghai, Reem manages and works with a diverse team of men and women. And while challenging her team members to achieve more is a positive thing as a leader, she wonders if women in seniority ought to stop and think about what they expect from other women a little more. 

“Women are slower to be promoted than men in business. Sadly that’s still the reality. And because higher standards are expected of women, I think it’s reasonable to assume that women who’ve made it to leadership positions are in some ways conditioned to demand more from other women. And whether this just perpetuates the problem.”

The problem, says Reem, stems from unconscious biases held by both genders. 

Challenging attitudes

Women are not innately more risk-averse than their male counterparts, more afraid of making mistakes or less inclined to believe in their ability. These behaviours come from a kind of gender-stereotyped conditioned thinking that not only hampers women’s ascent of the career ladder, but can impair their judgment (of other women) when they make it to the top.

“Senior women need to challenge these attitudes. We need to share strong messages about how it’s OK to make mistakes, and how it’s not necessary to have everything lined up all the time. We’re conditioned to believe that we have to outperform men and ourselves to succeed, but for women in leadership I think there’s a duty to question these mindsets and open up the pathways to other women – to believe a bit more in women full-stop.”

Reem’s own pathway to leadership has taken her through both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, by way of a degree in architecture from the American University of Sharjah, Dubai and a diverse range of of roles spanning communications, media, consulting, education and training. Prior to joining PwC, she headed up communications for the World Wide Fund for Nature in the United Arab Emirates. She is, by her own admission, a “Jack of all trades.”

“I’ve done many different things but what pulls it all together, I suppose, is a passion for change – creating and realising intentional change – and a love of learning.”

And it’s a love of learning that brought to her to the Executive MBA at London Business School (LBS) in Dubai in 2015. 

The support network

“I was very keen to expand my knowledge in change management and the EMBA at LBS in Dubai delivered that. We spent a lot of time together within my cohort exploring new concepts and sharing perspectives, but we also had broadened access to very diverse groups of business practitioners across other programmes in the School – a wider network. So there was a really interesting knowledge-sharing dynamic that pushes your learning forward but also broadens out the way you approach ideas, challenges and opportunities.”

It was this wide LBS network that Reem contacted when she relocated to China. “I can’t overstate the value of this network. The first thing I did on arrival in Shanghai was reach out to the LBS network for advice and support.”

Support is key in managing change and achieving professional goals, Reem says, and particularly for women who continue to face the unique obstacles of social conditioning and inherent bias as they attempt to progress in their careers. 

“It’s still pretty hard to reach the top if you are not white and male. At a junior level it’s more straightforward. Women perform well and work harder to prove themselves at university so they’re coming into their careers well qualified. This falls apart the higher you go, as you encounter unconscious biases and then things like gender-selective mentorship. The support isn’t there uniformly for women or people from marginalised backgrounds.”

For Reem, part of the answer could come in the form of a paradigm shift in how people see leadership itself. 

Rethinking leadership itself

There’s a stereotype of success, she says, that prioritises a certain narcissism or a tendency to over-achieve; and it’s a standard that is not only difficult to achieve but that hinders the progress of others. 

“People who conform to this stereotype are less likely to help the processes of diversity or greater authenticity in leadership – they’re not going to help nurture people from marginalised backgrounds.” 

Reem would welcome more “altruism” in leadership. “I think it should be incumbent on good leaders to think responsibly about the communities their business touches – about how they impact those communities or move capital around them, and what they can do to help develop greater openness in this respect. There’s a long-held understanding of how leaders should be and act. Sharing emotions or being altruistic in your leadership can be seen as ‘fluffy’ or weak in some way. And I believe this idea is dangerous. I think that in stifling these human qualities you can do more harm than good. If we’re serious about addressing some of the big issues we face in our organisations and our societies, I think it’s time we rethink what it means to be a leader.”