Professional Women: Should You Take a Job in the Middle East?

By Genevieve Bautista

The incredible amount of development in the Middle East presents a wealth of opportunities for expatriate working professionals. For women from Western countries, though, it may not seem as appealing given pre-conceived notions of the role and treatment of women in Middle Eastern cultures. Do the opportunities outweigh the challenges?

There are remarkable opportunities for women in various industries and professions. If you are the adventurous type, this could be one of the most unique and exciting work experiences of your life, both professionally and personally. However, it is important to go in with your eyes wide open and understand the challenges that cultural norms may present for expatriate women.

When I was approached to move to the Middle East to work on a greenfield hospital construction project, it seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime — to build a state-of-the art health care facility, to help raise the standard of care in the region, to live in and explore a new country, and to learn about a new culture. What an intriguing proposition!

Despite all the research I did to try to educate myself prior to moving to the Middle East, I was not entirely prepared for some of the cultural differences that I experienced during my first few months. And quite frankly, it is one thing to read or hear about it and another thing to experience it first-hand.

There were times when I felt like I had no voice or went unacknowledged in business meetings — perhaps because I am female? On several occasions, I witnessed my Caucasian, male counterparts receive preferential treatment in business and social situations, restaurants, hotels, and even grocery stores. It was certainly a frustrating and difficult adjustment. But over time, as I came to understand more about the culture, I learned to take these things less personally.

Seemingly a paternalistic society, women are actually highly respected within their families. And though it is a slow evolution, in any country for that matter, women are starting to assume leadership positions and many of the younger generation are becoming more interested in entrepreneurial endeavors.

As for me, I learned that the Middle Eastern business culture is based on trust. As I gained trust, I gained respect, and subsequently developed a stronger voice around the table. To be successful as an expatriate female in the Middle East requires a shift in perspective, which can be difficult. But it is definitely possible. It just takes time, patience and an open mind.

Feel free to share your perspective, whether you’re a woman who has worked in the Middle East, or have observed the experience of your female colleagues.

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