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International Women's Day

#ChooseToChallenge – International Women’s Day 2021

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Observed since the early 1900’s when women’s oppression and inequality in the industrialised world spurred women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change. International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on the 19 March 1911 – more than one million women and men attend IWD rallies campaign for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and to end discrimination. On the eve of World War 1 in 1914 it was agreed that IWD would be marked annually on 8 March and has remained the global date ever since. 

In 2021 the world has witnessed significant change, with more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights and increased visibility in every aspect of life. Despite the positive steps forward, the fact remains that women are still not paid equally or as visible in business or politics. According to women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people and just 39% of rural girls attend secondary school. UNESCO estimates around the world 132 million girls are out of school, everyday girls face barriers to education caused by poverty, cultural norms, poor infrastructure, violence and fragility.    

Here at GESS we wanted to celebrate this year’s IWD and what better way than showcasing four inspirational women who are making their mark in their own unique way. We find out about their careers, what their greatest achievements have been, how they’ve overcome a particular challenge and what advice they’d give their younger selves. Thank you to Gemma Wild, Sector Head for Education – MENAT, HSBC; Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research; Hend Alawadhi, Aircraft Engineer – Senior Airworthiness Inspector; and Fiona Cottam, Principal, Hartland International School Dubai for sharing their insights and experiences.

GESS Education: Why did you choose the career you did? 

Gemma: Some of the best things happen by accident – and I’m very grateful that my career choice was one of them! I was working in HSBC’s call centre to support my studies in nutrition 2003 as the hours fitted well around my lectures. It was then, that I realised banking was a far broader business than I had realised and that it was a career I wanted to pursue. So, I applied for a role at HSBC in corporate banking as an Analyst. With my foot in the door, I was excited to learn about the many different business models; what works, what doesn’t work, how to support clients achieve their ambitions, and often, their personal dreams. It was an entirely new world – and one I found very appealing.  

Natasha: I always had an interest in helping people get an education and in turn helping them to be part of the development of their community.

Hend: It was an inborn passion. My interest was in the airplane models and not in the stuffed toys or girls’ dolls when I was a child. The many travels with my family fostered my passion during the growing up years. I should say that my passion for the aviation industry was born in me and that it grew up with me.

Fiona: I am not entirely sure when the decision to train to be a teacher actually happened. I studied Classical Music and English at university and at some point during that study, a careers discussion and presentation guided me in that direction.  My passion for those subjects, especially Music, certainly paved the way for me to try to inspire others in the same way that I had been inspired by my teachers at school and the rest is history as they say.

GESS Education: What has been your career high?

Gemma: There have been a few. One was winning an Outstanding Achievers Award for Customer Excellence in when I was a junior manager at RBS. One of the many plus points of being selected for the Award was that I was flown with a group of colleagues from the UK to Monaco where we had a private show from Shirley Bassey. Another high was being recognised as the Deal Maker of the Business Magazine awards. These accolades are special, but what truly puts a smile on my face is when I have helped transform my clients’ prospects. That’s when I feel I’ve contributed real value – to the client, to HSBC and to myself. This could be anything, from helping a client buy another business or connecting them with a valuable contact that can positively transform their strategy. 

Natasha: So far it has been seeing some of the boys in our Hands on Learning Program completely re-engage with school and decide that they now want to go on to university.

Hend: Being one of Bahrain’s first female aircraft engineers. But it didn’t stop there, as my urge for self-development and taking challenges gave me a new responsibility, making me a pioneer by taking the opportunity of being a Senior Airworthiness Inspector at Bahrain’s Civil Aviation. In 2017 I was honored to receive the Bahraini’s Women Day Award from the Supreme Council of Women for my continuous contributions to the engineering industry. Recently I’ve been chosen with another 11 candidates from the Arab region, to participate in The Astronaut reality show a collaboration between Dubai TV and BBC news, a childhood dream that I loved and admired being an astronaut.

Fiona: Oh gosh – thankfully there are far too many to mention. Leading a through school like Hartland and learning every day from colleagues and children has absolutely been a highlight, but undoubtedly, some of the greatest days in the academic calendar have always been examinations results days, for GCSE and A level. Seeing the anticipation and then ultimate joy on the faces of students as they achieve their goals and realise their ambitions is an incredible feeling. To know that you have helped and played some small part in that journey is immensely rewarding, but I guess that is the purpose behind all that we do as teachers.  Ensuring that the young people in our care are happy and can flourish,  aspire and achieve their very best is the day-to-day job of everyone involved in education and the role of the Headteacher is no different.

GESS Education: What has been your greatest achievement?  

Gemma: Most recently, achieving my first international role by relocating to Dubai has been a great personal achievement. This opportunity came at a time when I was well-established in my career in the UK and well ensconced with my business network, family and friends. So, leaving to essentially start again was daunting – but the best thing I have ever done. Having taken that leap, I have grown and developed more quickly than I ever could have imagined. And thanks to this experience, I would definitely want to work in another region at some point. Being tested outside your comfort zone considerably builds your resilience – and make you much stronger.

Natasha: Establishing the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research on behalf of HH Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah

Hend: I’m a daughter, a wife, a friend and an aircraft engineer, blogger, influencer and an entrepreneur. Managing a work-life balance I consider it as my biggest achievement. I was able to find my balance and found that life comes first and work comes second. As we are here to live and our career is meant to be our support system. I gained the ability and realisation that a person shouldn’t be limited to one thing in life. That we all can experiment diverse aspects of our interests to make the best out of our lives and develop our skills and capabilities.

Fiona: I am convinced that my greatest achievements have always actually been the success and achievements of others. Building and growing a school community such as Hartland has been very rewarding. Some might describe the success of the school as a personal achievement, but actually it’s not just down to me. It is down to the team, the staff, the students and the parents but I do take great confidence and personal pride in the team that I have brought together in our Hartland community. The culture that we have together created and the core values that we operate with as our mantra are so important in all that we do, making coming to work a real privilege every day.


GESS Education: The theme of this year’s #IDW2021 is “Choose to Challenge”. Has there been a particular challenge you’ve faced and how did you deal with/overcome that challenge?

Gemma: Imposter syndrome – that’s easily been my biggest challenge! I have the fear that one day I will be found out for not being as good at my job as I need to be, which points to a need to bolster my self-belief and confidence.  Accordingly, I’ve been working on my resilience by listening to podcasts and reading more material on coping mechanisms. I find self-affirmations are helpful, as well as asking whether my doubts are justified (the answer is nearly always no!). Aligning your thoughts with reality is key! 

Natasha: I have faced many challenges but I think the greatest challenge is learning to be the best possible leader… something I am still working on but basically it involves knowing yourself more and understanding my own strengths and weaknesses so that I can better relate to my team and encourage and support them. I read a lot and I also work with an executive coach.

Hend: My career life since day one was a challenge. As choosing a male dominant field that has minimum to no women in (Aviation) isn’t easy and deciding to continue down this path with all the obstacles every single day, I believe this answers your question. Also my first and biggest barrier was being a woman in a male dominated field, plus being young, people thought I was not aware or fit enough to succeed in what I’m getting myself into. But with my nature I considered it as a positive thing to be honest, as it made them not see me as a threat, rather than a passionate woman who doesn’t know what she’s really doing! That all changed once I actually achieved the first goal of being one of the first female aircraft engineer, but I didn’t settle there. My urge for self-development and taking up challenges gave me a new opportunities and possibilities, leading me as pioneer in this field with it I was given a new role as a Senior Airworthiness Inspector at Bahrain’s Civil Aviation, which was also makes me the first woman to hold this position.

Fiona: I have been quite fortunate throughout my career and honestly have never faced a particular challenge.  But of course, there have been challenging times on the journey, many of which have left indelible marks.  I am especially reflective on the untimely  deaths of students in my care. Matthew, James, Mohammed and Harry are names and faces that stay with me always and on those occasions, one has to draw deep from the well of our own life experience, our own beliefs and our own values to find a way forward.  There is a very real, but often hidden, emotional fragility when you know that your community depends on you so much to help pull them through these saddest of moments, but that is the privilege and responsibility of leadership. The support of my own family and friends has always been crucial, and along with having the right team of people with you professionally, well, it makes the obstacles far easier to overcome.

GESS Education: What would be the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self? 

Gemma: Do as much work experience as you can. This will help you better understand yourself, what you like, what you don’t and also, it’ll help you understand how to identify and then seize opportunities. I’d also say that it’s important to not be overly serious about your career too early in life. You have your whole life to work! If I could do it all over again, I’d have travelled more and soaked up more experiences away from work.

Natasha: Worry less…most things work out ok in the end (would give this advice to my older self too!) Also do a language study abroad to get fluent in another language, I studied French and Arabic but never got the chance to learn the language in situ.

Hend: Always go with the choices that scares you the most, because they are the ones that are going to help you grow the most. As my favourite personal saying “It’s your life, it’s your choice, so choose wisely”. To follow your dreams! People will always try to limit you, but no one knows your capabilities other than you. Believe in your dreams and remember you don’t have to prove them wrong, but you have to prove yourself right!

Fiona: Perhaps the words of Walt Disney resonate with me when I reflect on advice that I should have given to my younger self. He said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” There have definitely been times when I convinced myself that I was not good enough or not experienced enough to put myself forward for something when actually I knew deep down that I could do it and in fact, even do it better than others.  Is this because there remains an unconscious bias against women in leadership roles or because, as some research suggests, younger women display lower levels of confidence in themselves as leaders in their careers?** This is of course a generalisation, but I do know that as I have grown older and gained successful experience, I am more assertive in my self-belief and am better able to assert my self-confidence in my own abilities. To pick out just three equality and diversity traits, most certainly from my experience, age, ethnicity and gender should never prevent us from realising our dreams, yet I am sure that I allowed this to hold me back in the past. So the Walt Disney advice stands firm: if you can dream it, you can absolutely do it and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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