In this interview, Randa Bessiso, Middle East Director at The University of Manchester, shares her experience of gender diversity in the workplace and details her progression into a leadership role.
1. Tell us about your progression into your current role
I have spent much of my career working on market entry strategies, company start-ups and channel development programmes, and building profitable regional businesses and brands.
Over the last 22 years, I have focused on business education; firstly, in management education, training and professional development with PROJACS International as the Vice President for Training & Consultancy, and then with UK eUniversities, a UK Government funded initiative, focusing on higher education and technology. In 2006, I became the founding director of The University of Manchester Middle East Centre in Dubai.
Over the last decade, we have supported more than 2,200 part-time MBA students and graduated more than 1,000, making it one of the largest MBA communities of its kind in the region and the largest and fastest growing of the university’s international centres. This success is already leading to the introduction of new programmes from other schools within the university, with the launch of a suite of new industry-led master’s degree programmes.
In addition to teaching, we have introduced new services and initiatives including the Manchester Innovation Award for Emiratis, the introduction of corporate education programmes, and a unique research programme into the drivers and barriers to creativity and innovation in the GCC. Much of our success has been achieved through a wide range of collaborations with organisations and professional bodies. Through this role, I also became Chair of the UAE-UK Business Council’s Higher Education Group.
I consider myself fortunate to have been surrounded by accomplished and successful businesswomen and business leaders at The University of Manchester and Manchester Business School, and within our own students, alumni and partners; we all share the same passion to support the development of women in the workplace.
I am also fortunate to have been recognised among the ‘100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen’ by Forbes Middle East, in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and ‘200 Most Powerful Arab Women’, in 2014.
2. Did you always aspire to reach a leadership role in your career?
Yes, this was part of my upbringing - to take the initiative and responsibility for your education and career development and really to use your skills, talent and resourcefulness to create opportunities. I have always had an interest in starting businesses or new enterprises and a special interest in the field of education. It was perhaps natural then that I gravitated to an entrepreneurial hub like Dubai and set up the Middle East Centre for Manchester Business School, as part of The University of Manchester.
My preparation for life today started with my father, who was my first educator and who believed in me and motivated me. He believed in work being more than a self-interest; he believed it could touch lives and impact the greater community.
My first boss in management education was also a great motivator for my career. He believed in me at a young age and gave me the freedom and the confidence to take chances - this empowerment also challenged me to prove myself.
In my professional life I am blessed with an abundance of inspiring people and role models. I don’t have to look far for inspiring women; our President and Vice-Chancellor of the University is Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, the first woman to lead The University of Manchester – the UK’s biggest campus based university. Professor Fiona Devine is the first woman Dean of Alliance Manchester Business School, which operates six international centres worldwide – all of them led by women.
I also have more than 2,200 inspiring MBA students in the Middle East, many of them women, all facing and overcoming their own personal challenges to achieve their goals.
What could be more inspiring?
3. In your opinion is there a difference between how men and women plan to progress in their careers? Do you think that there are any differences within the Higher Education sector in which you work?
We can see clearly from our own MBA students that women excel academically and cluster at the top of the class. They also tend to be successful in their chosen careers; they often choose to undertake some kind of entrepreneurial work based on their studies and these often have a social dimension and benefit.
In the field of higher education, we see a very equitable gender balance and looking at my own university, women hold many of the leadership roles across the UK campus and all the international centres. We do tend to find highly educated and qualified people in the higher education sector – both women and men – and this means we have a very deep pool of talent to draw from for management, administration and leadership roles.
Of course, we are also privileged to work alongside our MBA students, who are successful professionals based in the Middle East and building careers across a wide range of industry sectors. We do see how some industries might vary in the skills they demand and the type of people they attract but neither of these relate to gender.
When you look at the global segmentation of prospective business school candidates, gender is not a factor in the seven basic segments that we look at. These are based on motivation and include: respect seekers, global strivers, balanced careerists, career revitalisers, socio-economic climbers, skill upgraders, impactful innovators. This span covers the mutually exclusive motivations of both women and men and provides interesting insights into career, as well as personal motivations.
Global research does suggest that overall, women are more pragmatic and outcomes-focused in their approach to graduate management education and are less intimidated by standardised testing than their male peers. Women in Western countries differ in their motivations and approaches to the application journey than women in emerging economies like China and India. Challenges related to funding are significant barriers for women.
Our global careers service experience shows that women have a strong belief in the transformative impact of education. They also understand and effectively harness the power of networking and actively plan and manage their careers.
4. Have you encountered any gender linked challenges or obstacles in your career?
Personally no - but we do see and recognise the struggle that some women MBA students face – whether this is pay equity in the workplace or access to funding for new business opportunities or further training and education.
5. In your experience, do you think women have the same career opportunities as men?
So much great work has been done to support women in the workplace, to help create opportunities and these efforts are producing results at every level, across many types of organisation.
The world of business is becoming more friendly and receptive to women. As a result, we see many more women excelling in business and creating the role models we need. This includes the Middle East region. Since 2014, Forbes Middle East has included corporate executives in its list of the 200 most powerful Arab women.
The business world is finally changing and recognising the full economic and other benefits of a strong presence for women in the workplace. Businesses also accept that many women have a strong leadership style that can be equally effective (or more so) in its own way, compared to male counterparts.
The business world is increasingly in need of and recognising the skills of women and the soft skills of leadership so business is also opening up to women. Women are empowered and opportunities are there.
Gender equality is recognised and women should be motivated to compete on equal terms with men and other women in the business world. Entrepreneurship is not the only route but one of many options for women to demonstrate their talents and there is plenty of support to help encourage this, as well as some great examples in the UAE.
The response of women should be to take these opportunities and use them responsibly to inspire the next generation of young women following.
6. Do you think flexible working has any bearing on career progression opportunities for women or men?
Business is more global than ever and more diverse. Companies are more dispersed and working more collaboratively.
The transformation of the workplace including the incorporation of flexible working is a major development.
Technology is an important enabler in transforming the workplace and whole industries; greater mobility, flexibility and tools for collaboration help women and men work from anywhere, anytime.
This is very apparent in the success of our part-time MBA programme, which moulds around the varied working lives of students. They are able to manage work, study and live more effectively than ever before because of this increased workplace flexibility.
Support for working mothers (and fathers) is essential and when there is a maternity break, women should stay engaged with the workplace, maintain their network of colleagues and industry contacts, and develop their personal professional brand, where possible. This will help in the transition back into the workplace.
7. Does your organisation have any diversity and inclusion programmes in place? If so, what are they and do you think they are successful?
The University of Manchester has a comprehensive Equality and Diversity Policy and one of our main guiding principles and values is to be an accessible organisation, committed to equality and diversity in everything we do, including staff employment and advancement.
In fact, the university is committed to building on Manchester’s existing reputation for diversity and ensuring we equip all our staff and students to enable them to enjoy a fully inclusive working environment.
Our staff networks, forums and events keep our community connected and engaged with diversity issues.
The policy is certainly working and I am privileged to work with many very talented and accomplished women across the university and across all our international centres, including the Middle East Centre.
Of course, we also actively encourage women to join our business education programmes and more widely in the community, for example through our MBA scholarship collaboration with the 30% Club (an organisation encouraging gender balance on boards) in the GCC, which actively supports businesswomen in the region.
These equality and diversity efforts have resulted in the university receiving awards from external bodies.
8. Going forward, what more do you think can be done to create a culture that enables women to thrive in their careers?
The prevailing climate in the region is becoming very supportive of women in businesses generally and supporting women moving into senior positions and the boardroom. There are obvious social and economic benefits to this.
There is so much support in this business friendly environment that there is little to hold back a determined businesswoman who has the confidence, training and skills to succeed in her chosen field.
Arab women are renowned and respected for their strength and are very prominent in family owned businesses in the region, as well as in government. We already have some fantastic role models. The benefits of economically active and career-fulfilled women are very clear in the region.
9. Do you have any advice for female professionals who are in, or are looking to progress to a management or leadership role?
I believe women are resourceful and entrepreneurial so education and training helps structure and develop this talent. Women do need support for the entire career journey and a network of peers and even mentors to help develop their business leadership opportunities.
The region provides a very supportive environment for businesswomen to flourish. There are now very few barriers to women improving their positions in the rapidly transforming world of work.
Perhaps the most important characteristic for women to develop is ‘confidence’ – to walk through the open door. Confidence is a function of self-belief and ability. It is developed through high quality education, ongoing training and development and nurtured through networking support and mentoring.
The good news is that there is now greater access to learning and training and more support available through networks for businesswomen, than ever before. This success is creating some amazing role models who are important in demonstrating what success may look like. We are fortunate to have an abundance of successful Arab and other businesswomen who can provide this inspiration.
My advice is to focus on overcoming any self doubts, follow your passion and make your career count. Make your life make a difference and believe in yourself.