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Interview Kathy and Ana – Two female engineers guests in the desert

Working in Arabia

“In the Middle East, each meeting is a surprise”
It seems difficult enough to maintain respect as a woman in the male-dominated oil and gas world. What happens when besides gender — you also have cultural differences to bridge? And what if the Middle East is exactly the place to be for your field of work? Apart from a few inconveniences, and oddities in social manners, as a visiting woman in Arab countries you can feel treated like a sultana.

Ana Cuellar has worked for a few months as metering automation engineer for plant IT and engineering specialists Hint, in Hattem, the Netherlands. Kathleen Conley has more than eighteen months experience as lead engineer at the company. Hint operates internationally and Cuellar and Conley also regularly deal with mostly male foreign contacts in their day-to-day work. Cuellar: “We work for many companies in the Middle East: Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, but we are also regularly doing business in the US.”

An abaya at 40 degrees Celsius
The assignments for Hint require that engineers also visit customers. Trips to the Middle East are not rare for Cuellar and Conley: “About once every two months I’m in Saudi Arabia. We installed our product AML at a large petrochemical company there. It was a comprehensive and long-term project.” Many people expect that it is difficult for women to work in the Middle East. Do cultural differences stand in the way of normal contact? This seems to go much better than expected. It is practical matters that sometimes antagonize. “Especially in Saudi Arabia, there are many rules, and the rules are not always clear. You may not as a woman, for example, sit in the front seat of a car. But you also may not sit in the back seat next to someone you are not related to. So really there is no other option but to break the rules and do one or the other. That makes it difficult to travel by car. In some countries you cannot just go out on the street as a woman. So you stay at the hotel as much as possible. Fortunately, there are hotels with a gym for women and a private beach.”

What about the dress code? Conley: “In Saudi Arabia we have to wear an abaya when we go outside. That’s a long black dress. Inside, in offices for example, it is not necessary, but it is impossible to constantly change clothes. We usually do not wear headscarves. It is not compulsory for non-Muslim women. Though it seems as a blonde woman you can better wear one.” Cuellar: “The main disadvantage of the abaya is that it is very hot. In the countries to the east where it can reach 40 degrees or warmer it’s not quite so comfortable to walk around completely covered.”

One shakes your hand, the other does not
Dress codes seem like surmountable inconveniences. As a woman, what sorts of differences do you notice while working? “The business cooperation with companies in the Arab countries is almost always good. Our clients are all international companies, where many people from Europe, the US or Asia are working. They are used to a lot of cultures and take them into account. Some men do not shake our hand. Not because they do not want to, but it is not culturally accepted. That is why we never give a hand first and we wait for the man to offer us his hand. In large companies this sometimes leads to awkward situations. The one shakes our hand, the other not. They are also confused themselves, it seems,” said Cuellar. Some men have to get used to it, Conley adds: “I have the feeling that you have to prove yourself first before you are completely trusted. Though that is not typical of the Middle East, but more something you notice generally as a woman in a man’s world.”

Where Conley has often been traveling to Arab countries for her work at Hint, Cuellar only recently visited the Middle East for the first time. There was not a huge culture shock though: “I found it particularly fun to experience the cultural differences. Every encounter is a surprise. How do people greet you? Will they shake your hand or not? I noticed that over time people get used to the idea of working with a woman. Operators we met in the beginning had some coping problems, but if you have a whole day hanging out with them, you end up touching on each other’s cultures. We work with Westerners, Arabs, Indians so plenty to talk about.”

Barbecue in the desert
Also typical of Arab culture is hospitality. The two engineers experienced this on a recent trip to Oman. Cuellar: “Very soon after I began working at Hint I went with Kathleen to Oman for a consulting project. For an oil producer there, we carried out a study into the introduction of a SCADA system. We had met with engineers in Muscat and visited a number of oil sites. We got a glimpse of the whole process, from the oil wells where the oil is extracted from the ground, to the separation process including the metering and transportation. We took a trip through the desert to reach some of the sites. After about five hours driving through the sand and extreme heat, we arrived at a camp. We stayed a few days. Actually, we were lucky that we were women because it entailed privileges. We got our own ‘suite’ and did not have to share with anyone. And the most special part: we were the first women to have ever spent the night in the desert at that spot! The highlight was perhaps the barbecue in the desert sitting on a rug on the sand. You would not expect this in such a place, but they wanted us to feel really welcome.”

Sceptical position
Cuellar and Conley are pretty unique as female engineers surrounded by men in the oil and gas industry. They sometimes feel in the minority. Conley: “I did a lot of physical technical work in the past. Then I did not always receive positive reactions because others would feel like the work wasn’t suitable for a woman. But it can also go the other way with colleagues wanting to offer more help than usual, which can be annoying because they do things for you that you can very well do yourself.” Cuellar adds: “The sceptical position you see, I think especially, in the beginning. If you show them that you do good work, it disappears again.” So it comes down to having to work harder to prove yourself as a woman. If you do make a mistake it is made to be more important than if a man made it,” said Conley. “But I do not blame people if they find it difficult to imagine a woman in a technical profession. If you are used to seeing women in a traditional role your entire life, it can also be a bit shocking.”

You don’t want to argue with a woman
Is it necessary to get more women into engineering? Cuellar thinks that women can add something: “Women are more precise than men. Men are more practical and faster. That can cause mistakes more easily. Women want to do everything right the first time.” Women are also different kinds of managers and, yes, better at multitasking, says Conley. But she stresses that above all there are differences between people, regardless of gender. “No group should be excluded from a particular field, because there can always be talent within it. This applies not only to women.”

Finally, Cuellar wants to emphasize that as a technical woman being in contact with men is certainly an advantage: “As a woman, I have the opportunity to develop better contact with my customers. If you know each other, a relaxed atmosphere can arise between you. You break the ice as a woman more easily with men than men themselves can. They generally handle things less personally. While you achieve more by being personal, such as when you have to glean information from your client. They don’t want to fight with a woman!”