February 20, 2023
Navigating Life's Turning Points: Women's Stories of Resilience and Growth
Stories weave the fabric of our lives, capturing defining moments and experiences. They resonate across art forms, from films to literature, music, and theatre. Aristotle once described stories as having a three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end. In the heart of the United Arab Emirates, we embarked on a journey to explore the power of storytelling among women, revealing the profound impact of their narratives on their professional lives.
This exploration led to our comprehensive study titled, 'Women in Organizations - from Theory to Practice in the United Arab Emirates: Ras Al Khaimah and the Northern Emirates.' Through this research, we delved into the personal and professional narratives of women, understanding the unique challenges they face, the triumphs they celebrate, and the turning points that define their careers. The stories shared by these women not only shed light on their individual journeys but also painted a broader picture of the societal and cultural dynamics at play in the region.
How can storytelling reveal meaning about women's personal and professional experiences?
Storytelling allows us to make sense of our experiences, connect with others, and share our unique perspectives (Atkinson, 2007). By telling our stories, we can identify patterns and themes in our lives, gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our motivations, and find meaning in the challenges and triumphs we have faced (Singer, 2004). Storytelling is a powerful way for women to navigate and make sense of their lives. This is particularly evident when considering that stories are often told post-event, serving as an agent's interpretation of the drama that unfolded. This unique characteristic of storytelling allows women to reflect, interpret, and derive meaning from their experiences, making it an invaluable tool for personal and professional growth.
Stories serve as powerful tools to delve into the intricate tapestry of workplace experiences, shedding light on the challenges and triumphs of not only men and the underserved but, as our study emphasizes, particularly women. Women's narratives offer a unique lens, revealing the distinct challenges and barriers they face, as well as the strategies they employ to navigate and overcome these obstacles. By immersing ourselves in these stories, we foster empathy and understanding, paving the way for more equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces. Through the art of storytelling, our study unravels the complexities of identity challenges in the MENA region, highlighting educational disparities, deeply entrenched cultural biases towards gender, and the hurdles female university students and academicians face in their career progression.
While the stories of women in the MENA region reveal the challenges and triumphs they face, there's an overarching metaphor that encapsulates the broader systemic issues at play: the 'Leaking Pipeline.' This metaphor not only underscores the barriers women face but also emphasizes the importance of their narratives in shedding light on these challenges.
'LEAKING PIPELINE' in the MENA Region
The metaphor of the 'leaking pipeline' symbolizes an international phenomenon in which fewer and fewer women progress to each ascending level, from education to employment, and then through the organizational hierarchy. Ultimately finding far fewer women than men in senior positions, for instance, studies across the Arab Gulf States have revealed a sparse representation of women on boards (WoBs). The persistence of stereotypes and patriarchy continues to constrain and squeeze female talent out of the labor market and out of seniority.
Our study includes deeply personal stories of fourteen incredible women participants who meet three specific criteria: Women working in the Northern Emirates in UAE, either employed or self-employed in the private and public sectors.
To provide a comprehensive understanding of their narratives, we employed a five-part structure, also known as Freytag's pyramid. While Aristotle originally described stories as having a simple three-act structure consisting of a beginning, middle, and end, Freytag's pyramid offers a more detailed breakdown, contextualizing a woman's professional narrative within a larger societal and cultural framework. This structure can be valuable for understanding the broader forces at play in her journey. The five-part narrative structure consists of the following:
- Act 1 is the introduction, where the character and setting are introduced, followed by a complication or a challenge. Such an instant is called a turning point.
- Act 2 is called the rising movement, where the story builds toward an impact.
- Act 3 is called the climax, the peak of the narrative conflict, another 'turning point.'
- Act 4 is the return, where signs of the story’s end become apparent but where another turning point, the force of final suspense, is necessary to keep the interest of the audience.
- Finally, Act 5 is again a catastrophe."
To further make sense of this structure, we zoomed in on a crucial element of these women’s stories: the turning point. Defined as a pivotal moment in one's career, such as the acquisition of a new job, turning points serve as markers of significant change (Barker-Ruchti et al., 2014). Our participants narrated these critical incidents in their lives, highlighting their profound impact on their career trajectories. The emphasis on turning points in our study aligns with the broader narrative structure, shedding light on life transitions that could indicate motivations for career changes.
Delving deeper into the concept, turning points are not just about career shifts. They are deeply entwined with "a notion of a self-identity," a realization of personal evolution within "an ever-changing structural, cultural, and interpersonal environment" (Hackstaff, Kupferberg & Négroni, 2012)
The Power of Women's Narratives in the MENA Region
Listening to women's stories about their professional lives offers researchers and practitioners a deep and rich source of research material. These narratives, while deeply personal, provide a window into the broader societal and cultural dynamics at play. The interpretation of turning points from these narratives provides a version of career stories, offering insights but not necessarily the only truth about 'this is me and how I became.'
Our study, beyond its academic implications, has tangible outcomes that serve the community. One significant outcome is the enrichment and extension of training resources and information about women's achievements in the Northern Emirates through the 'Virtual Center for Women & Leadership (MENA)'. This platform, led by Linzi J Kemp, was born out of the realization of the disparity between the number of women in education and their representation in business leadership roles in the GCC.
The Virtual Center for Women & Leadership: A Comprehensive Resource Hub
The Virtual Center for Women & Leadership is not merely a digital platform but a comprehensive hub brimming with resources, insights, and stories that champion women's achievements in the MENA region. Key highlights from the project include:
- Podcast Series: Title:
"Women in Leadership (WIL) UAE" Purpose: Celebrates the voices of women leaders in the community. Impact: Over 1000 downloads, indicating the resonance and relevance of these stories.
- Interactive 3D Environment:
Features: An immersive 3D environment that allows users to engage deeply with the content. Inclusion: Showcases critical voices from the community, opinion leaders, and champions for the project.
- Expert List:
Objective: Address the noticeable lack of female representation in public forums and media. Benefit: Ensures gender balance by cataloging women with significant knowledge and experience in various fields, making them easily accessible for consultations, panels, and public engagements.
- Professional Development Resources:
Availability: Freely accessible resources for personal and professional growth. Focus: Celebrates and highlights women's achievements, providing inspiration and guidance for the next generation of female leaders.
By consolidating these resources and insights, the Virtual Center for Women & Leadership stands as a testament to the power of women's narratives and their pivotal role in shaping the future.
Prof. Lindsay Kemp, Professor of Management, Graduate Program Director, School of Business, American University of Ras Al Khaimah
Professor Norita Ahmad, Professor, Marketing and Information System, American University of Sharjah
Dr. Mohamad Osman Shereif Mahdi Abaker, Department Chair/Associate Professor, Management, School of Business, American University of Ras Al Khaimah
Dr. Sabir Haque, Asst. Professor, Mass Communication, School of Arts and Science, American University of Ras Al Khaimah
You can access our policy paper here
Women in Organizations: From Theory to Practice in the United Arab Emirates — Ras Al Khaimah and the Northern Emirates
Atkinson, R. (2007). The life story interview as a bridge in narrative inquiry. In D. J. Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp. 224-245). Sage Publications, Inc.
Barker-Ruchti, N., Lindgren, E. C., Hofmann, A., Sinning, S., & Shelton, C. (2014). Tracing the career paths of top-level women football coaches: turning points to understand and develop sport coaching careers. Sports Coaching Review, 3(2), 117-131.
Hackstaff, K., Kupferberg, I., & Négroni, M. (2012). Turning points and the construction of the self: Change, continuity, and narrative elaboration. Current Sociology, 60(4), 481-495.
Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 437-460.