Knee-length skirt and jacket: how do women do business in Dubai?
At 9 o’clock in the morning I am waiting my mentor excitedly in the lobby of the Dubai hotel. Mr. Péter Bolesza is the vice president of NNG and he is responsible for developing markets. The night has been long, I could not fall asleep before two. I am tiredly watching people and what they are having for breakfast and I am wondering where they could come from and why they are here, in this desert paradise. A lot of questions are swirling in my head, I am excited, and also a bit frustrated, whether my clothes are going to fit Dubai business life? It is 40 degrees outside, while it is 23 inside, this and my stereotypical thoughts about Arabian culture – it’s a complete chaos. I can see a lot of options from tourist women wearing shorts to chador, but the most common attire is long-sleeved pants with elbow-length tops.
I can see Péter at last and he invites me to their table where a girl of my age, Fanni Szabó, the key account manager of NNG is having a coffee. I quickly check Fanni’s attire: knee-length skirt, stockings, short-sleeved jacket – I can calm down a bit. Both of them are very nice and they share the schedule of the day with me: we are going to have two meetings before we would fly to India with Péter in the evening.
The heat is unbearable even for that three seconds of getting from the hotel to the taxi, but the locals do not skimp on air conditioning as fuel is cheap. Our first client is a manager who is specifically responsible for road navigation at a big American car company. He is a thirtysomething guy of Arabian origin with excellent British accent, dressed in informal, almost startupish garments, and he welcomes us with a wide smile. The view from the meeting room is almost embarrassingly sumptuous onto the sunny beach and the constantly developing Dubai luxury buildings. The meeting is immensely technical, I obviously cannot add anything, hence I am only observing the dynamics of the conversation. Fanni is very precisely aware of the deadlines, agenda points and the tasks to be discussed, she does not waste any time, things are just running. As some sort of an outside observer, I still have the feeling that there is an unbalance in communication – the client keeps asking things from Peter and despite the fact that Fanni gives the answers he barely looks at the female colleague. I would be incredibly disturbed by this attitude if I were Fanni, but I cannot see any sign of this on her.
On the way to our second meeting, I ask her weather she has already had negative experiences just because of being a woman. She cannot bring up anything particular even after quite some time of thinking, the roughest case was when Korean partners asked her to a party, but she regarded this rather as a compliment. Peter adds that it has not been that easy to reach this status though there weren’t any problems with expertise and brain. He took her wherever he could and passed as many tasks as possible to her. It happened that the clients sent their e-mail responses to Peter or called him though the communication had been initiated by Fanni, but in these cases they were intentionally directed back, so they slowly learned that Fanni is to be treated as an equal partner. All in all, both of them came to the conclusion that when you work at a foreign company, no problems will occur if the lady knows her job.
Our second meeting begins with a business lunch, the atmosphere is particularly friendly, as if old friends were sitting around the table. The automotive regional manager from India and his assistant from Singapore know Peter and Fanni very well. The meeting continues in their office where the atmosphere becomes more serious but there is still no sign of that of the previous meeting. This is a team here with the shared goal to make the navigation system of the new car as best as possible. If you have the knowledge, it does not count where you come from or if you are a man or a woman. The contrast is interesting.
We have a farewell drink in the hotel and I learn that Fanni is going to stay another day to go to a meeting with one of the suppliers – on her own. On the trip to the airport, we are chatting about making one’s way in the world as a woman and about cultural differences originating from formality. Peter wittily adds that most probably not that country will be the most formal and be the most prejudiced against women in business life which I expect to be so. But he does not want to spoil it so that I too can admit that I myself have false prejudices as well.