Last Spring, women from the Middle East and Scandinavia gathered in Stockholm to at- tend a three-day conference on sustainability and leadership. Organized by Lund University and the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Stockholm, the Women for Sustainable Growth (WSG) Inaugural Summit allowed women from different backgrounds to meet with the aim of creating a network of female leadership. Although I was in Syracuse working on my M.A. in International Relations, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate in this fascinating event. I also heard from my father (a diplomat posted in Stockholm) that the organizers were having a hard time finding Saudi participants so I decided that even if no other Saudi woman could make it, at least I could provide a Saudi presence there. Throughout the two-day conference, participants were able to meet with each other, engage in workshops, and discuss issues relating to public policy, entre- preneurship, innovation, and corporate social responsibility. The conference also created a space where well-established female leaders were able to explore and discuss common issues with aspir- ing female professionals. Some of the key participants and panelists included the Swedish Trade Minister, Dr. Ewa Björling; H.E. Najla AlQassimi, the UAE Ambassador to Sweden; fashion designer Rabia Zargarpur; and the Swedish director for The Hunger Project, Asa Kogström Feldt.

One of the most compelling discussions of the first day occurred during a section after a panel on sustainable careers for women. Swedish women and women from the Gulf discussed the cultural differences that affected the ability to achieve a sustainable career. Women from Saudi Arabia and the UAE expressed that their greatest obstacle in having a sustainable career is the 

challenge of balancing a job with raising children. While some women from the Gulf believed that a mother must give up her job to raise her children, most disagreed and instead wanted to see an increase in male participation when it comes to raising children. An Emirati woman pointed out that despite cul- tural pressures, it is the obligation of the woman to make her husband take more responsibility rather than wait for him to do so. A few of the women that spoke used themselves as examples and said that they wouldn’t have been able to travel to Sweden and attend this conference if their husbands hadn’t taken responsibility for their kids. On the Scandinavian side, the major issue they were struggling with was the extremely low numbers of women in leadership positions.

The second day of the conference was made up of a series of workshops and exercises that were meant to help simulate the way in which women from both parts of the world could collaborate profes- sionally. The participants presented eight ideas for initiatives that would integrate the goals of the WSG summit, and then based on personal interests, broke off into groups in order to create a plan on how to make these initiatives a reality. The eight groups focused on a range of different fields including fashion and humanitarianism, but given my background in journalism, I chose a group that aimed to empower women through the use of media and communications. The internal dynamic of my group turned out to be a great example of how women from Scandinavia and the Gulf could assist each other professionally. The group leader and creator of the group was a Saudi participant who founded a public relations firm in Jeddah and given that her firm is fairly new we decided to use it as an example of an organization. Most of the six other participants that chose this group were experts in communications and public relations so they served as mentors to the firm and together we came up with a plan for how the firm could empower women in Saudi Arabia and eventually the Gulf.

Since many topics were discussed and a multitude of interesting arguments were made through- out the two days of the conference, below is a brief overview of some compelling points from the confer- ence:

  • Women everywhere often underestimate themselves.

  • Role models are important for women in entrepreneurship (as well as other fields).

  • The current business environment does not cater to women. A new business structure needs to be

    created so women don’t have to drop out of the workforce if they decide to have children.

  • Women hold one-third of the wealth in the GCC.

  • An Omani NGO, Tawasul, finds that the biggest challenge when training and empowering women is their lack of confidence.

  • Generally speaking, women lack education and experience in entrepreneurship.

  • Networking with other women is extremely important.

    This conference was not only enlightening and educational, but it also offered me the opportu- nity to meet and learn from many different kinds of women. I was able to meet with young women at the beginning of their careers like myself, as well as women that have years of experience in a range of fields. Conferences like these are not only important for educational purposes but also help encourage and motivate young women to work towards leadership positions. I encourage more universities to con- duct similar kinds of activities and more women to network and support each other professionally.

    Haifa Jedea, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, graduated with a Minor in Middle Eastern Studies (2010) and is currently completing her M.A. degree in International Relations at the Maxwell School.