"I’m competing with people [men] who would die for their jobs and eventually it starts getting hard,” were the words of Salma Ali Saif Bin Hareb, CEO of Economic World Zones and the patron of Women in Logistics UAE, in an interview four years ago, when she was asked about the challenges she faced in her job.
When I first meet Nicola McCart, vice-chairperson for Women in Logistics UAE, I wonder if that balance may have equalised. After all, she’s just ditched her heels for flats and hiked half a mile from her company’s offices to meet me for an interview.
Nicola is no stranger to a challenge, I quickly learn; she applied for a newly-introduced Masters of Science in Logistics at the Glasgow Caledonian University, out of curiosity. Despite being one of only three women in the class she excelled and graduated with a distinction. Not fully understanding the potential of her career at the start, she dipped into everything from forecasting to consumer logistics before finding her niche in the recruitment of logistics and supply chain professionals. Today she is the director of her own company, Hamilton Recruitment, in Dubai.
But, Nicola is quick to point out that the purpose of establishing Women in Logistics UAE is not to start a battle of the sexes. Instead, the main focus is to help women understand the immense potential of this industry and allow them to find a niche for themselves. “This is a really exciting industry and it’s not all about lifting heavy objects or working in a really ‘un-women-friendly’ environment,” says McCart. “You can go into areas using your communication skills, your relationship management skills, negotiating skills, planning, mathematical, project management or IT skills. There are so many opportunities for women.
“I’m working closely with university students to get the message out, because I have been in that situation where I had left university but didn’t know the full potential of this career. I may have just touched the iceberg on logistics from what I now know. And the opportunities weren’t that obvious either when I left. So I left university having the qualification and experience, but really blind to the opportunities that it could offer me.”
Nicola also believes that women need to be brave and explore the different possibilities. “I think it’s two-way, you know. Women have to step forward as well, individually. They have to seek out, step forward, take that risk and look at these opportunities, because there’s so much that they can bring to the table,” she says, stopping to take a sip of coffee.
She continues: “But women shouldn’t be pushed at these opportunities; they should want to do it themselves. And that’s through education, and meeting inspiring women from the logistics and supply chain industry.
“It’s not seen as a glamorous career, if you think of it compared to working in maybe the retail industry, the banking industry or financial services. That provides a nice friendly industry for women to visualise. Whereas logistics: straight away, you visualise barriers.
“So again, I think women have to be shown that they are needed and that they can do it and that there’s a place for them in logistics. We should be using our talent to be a flexible, intelligent and solutions-driven workforce; it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are or where you come from.”
With these thoughts in mind I attend the launch of the Women in Logistics UAE initiative by CILT (Chartered Institute for Logistics and Transport) on May 20 at the Emirates Aviation College. This industry is hardly the most attractive to men, so I wonder what attracted these women to this particular field, and what are the challenges they may face.
The first woman I meet is Nadia Abdul Aziz, managing director of Union National Air, Land & Sea Shipping Company; she has an MBA and 10 years of freight forwarding experience. She is also on the executive board of several logistics associations in the UAE. She tells me she found her way into the industry by chance. “It was by coincidence. Somebody left the company, messed things up, was not totally honest; it was a family business and as I wasn’t working then - I was doing my MBA - I started working there and after that I didn’t have the heart to leave.”
“So I had to learn the hard way. Nobody taught me anything and this is why I also started taking training courses with Dubai Trade and with the CILT. But it’s difficult for a woman; it’s a very stressful industry because it’s very dynamic and you rely mainly on foreign agents to handle your work. So even if you do a good job, if your agent doesn’t, or there’s no proper communication, or documentation is missing, then you have problems.
“So it’s not a very smooth industry; it’s very stressful and women are not geared up for this,” she says. “There are also not many universities that offer logistics courses or supply chain and freight forwarding as a major. This is sad because this is a country that is well known within the gulf for import and export shipping. It’s a shipping and import-export hub. So maybe if there’s more effort towards that, towards training, you will have more women in the industry because now you have women in engineering, women doctors; it was not the regular thing that you would see before. Now you even have local ladies as engineers going out on the sites and working in the sun - and they’re fine with it.”
I meet another Emirati woman, Saeeda Al Hashimi, who is in the early stages of her career with DP World – the first opportunity she got after graduating. After getting a reassurance from me that I would not be taking her picture, she admits this industry is a challenge. “Being a woman in such an industry is quite - I won’t say difficult - but it’s challenging, because there are some activities that can only be done by men. And that’s either by possessing documentation or procedures. So the areas for women are narrow; I think women need to stay in management more and it will be more advantageous to her career,” she says.
Geni Cabre, who I stop to chat to next, tells me she was attracted to the industry because of its versatile and varied nature. But, she too has found some challenges. “Especially in this region, men tend to take other men more seriously than they do women. So if I’m standing with a male colleague, they would normally go and talk to him rather than me. Actually, I’ve just started my own consultancy, but before that, getting recognition with the client was harder, because I am a woman,” she reveals.
Rose Muyinda, head control officer for Emirates Group, agrees with Cabre: “What I can contribute is that we need some kind of awareness; awareness that men should accept the ladies, because there’s this general perception that logistics is for men only,” she says. “And they tend to think you are not able to do the job, so we need awareness for the men to accept the ladies and accept that actually, yes, we can do it. There’s nothing we can’t do. Ladies can drive, they can do anything they want to do.
“But it’s just that there must be some kind of awareness that people should change their attitude, because if you don’t change your attitude towards the ladies; well if you’re working with a women and your attitude is negative, then definitely it will make it difficult for the ladies to work. So men should change their attitude and that will help us a lot.”
Next I meet Graciella Rallos and Vasilika Makhmudova from FedEx. Makhmudova recognises my picture from the previous issue (a journalist’s celebrity dream). After signing the imaginary autographs, I ask them what they think. Rallos believes that this industry is for “strong” women. “I find this field very male-oriented and I think it is more suitable for men. But to see women working in this kind of field means that these women have very strong personalities and are tough,” she says.
While Makhmudova feels women have restricted opportunities: “There are a lot of challenges for women involved in logistics, actually; I mean we are generally assigned to certain tasks like analysing. While we have good analytic skills, being women, I’d love the challenge of operations. Sadly, I don’t see lots of opportunity from my perspective to work in operations, I mean real logistics operations.”
My final conversation of the night is with a woman who is bemused by the views of the fellow members of her gender. Meet Katharina Albert, managing director of Simplan. “Actually, I don’t find any challenges,” she tells me.
“Sometimes you are under-estimated, which makes it easy in the end. And actually, because there are not many women in the field, you still get a lot of attention. And I find it easier working at events to connect to people, so, yes, I find it only positive to be a woman in logistics.
“I want to tell women not to worry about these things, and just go for it and do it. Don’t listen to people saying, ‘Ah, why are you doing this now?’ and, ‘This is not for you,’ and ‘Don’t do that and don’t do this’. If you feel right and you like engineering or mathematics - don’t worry whether you’re male or female just go for it. And that will prove to be right in the end, and you’ll be successful in life and in work.
“People will put zones in front of you, but you just need to smile and step over obstacles: do your own thing and enjoy it.”