How Female PhD Students Are Driving Business Growth In The Middle East – Specialized Advice From CWIIL Group

The head of Brunel Business School explains how a new PhD programme is creating a generation of female business leaders and driving a knowledge economy.

Women are important for economic growth,” says Bahraini student Najma Taqi. “A female contribution to addressing business issues is a must.”

For women in the Middle East, having a strong voice on the culture of business and making a genuine contribution to change and development isn’t straightforward. Studying overseas continues to run against the grain, so women from the region haven’t been able to benefit from the academic rigour, latest thinking, and kind of culture of intellectual exploration found in Western universities. Yet it’s this kind of validation from leading institutions that is all-important for getting the business world, and governments, to pay more attention to the female perspective and its importance.

Business in the region has been cut off from new perspectives and thinking from women involved in high-level research. But Taqi is one of the people who are starting to make a difference, as one of the early participants in a British PhD programme delivered locally with a university in Bahrain.

“I wanted to know more, I wanted to figure out things, get off the beaten path and work my own way through the woods,” Taqi explains. “I’ve never responded well to authority and being able to work on a higher research project has given me all the freedom I like. It’s the ideal situation for me.”

It’s a PhD “without residence”, so expertise is both flown in from Brunel Business School (part of Brunel University) and based locally at Ahlia University, with just one trip to London for the oral defence of their thesis. Half the participants (recruited from across the region, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are women: a much higher proportion than we’d expect for this type of higher research degree.

Many of the female participants also need to combine a PhD with careers, as well as responsibilities as wives and mothers which can’t always be juggled or compromised within the region’s culture. Ebtesam Al-Alawi is a working mother who also runs her own business.

“With my hectic schedule, being forced to face life’s daily obstacles and be an active member of society, I have needed the constant support available to make it possible for me to commit to the programme. It’s no surprise that drop-out rates on PhDs are so high.”

The programme is distinctive from part-time programmes or lone researchers. Instead, there is a “cohort”, a group of researchers who start and finish at the same time, which allows for a research community to form and support each other throughout the process.

Al-Alawi’s research has focused on the general lack of understanding of the role women play in business.

“Theories on the creation of businesses have been formulated and tested on male entrepreneurs and don’t reflect women’s processes and organisational styles,” she said. “Serious research is needed to consider the problems faced by women entrepreneurs, their administrative practices, their abilities for achieving success, gender differences, conflicts between their roles in their business and their families, and the vision they have for their enterprises.”

Keeping research activity and focus local also means research topics themselves can be concentrated on regional issues that matter to individuals and their organisations. The programme attracts topics that are relevant to the region and since the students don’t relocate, the knowledge stays in the region and helps create a knowledge economy that promotes growth.

In this case, we have seen thesis topics such as women on corporate boards, community leadership in a new democracy, national culture and knowledge management, the role of emotional intelligence in improving intercultural training, and religion and corporate philanthropy.

This kind of “intellectual aid” from the UK will be important in the bigger picture of longer-term relationships and stability. Getting women’s ideas, insights and perspectives across, and woven into the fabric of business thinking will help avoid the dangers of an academic black hole in the Gulf. It will also mean we find ourselves with more in common and better able to share opportunities in both directions.

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