Not one to wait for things to happen, she and a few others formed a group called These Women Mean Business. The group created connections with women who were disconnected, providing feedback, sharing resources and best practices.
“When we saw how much they benefited from this connection, the small group that we were, we wanted to make it available for a much bigger audience. That’s how the How Women Work conference was born.” says Zeitler, in an interview with BQ.
The 2016 edition of HWW would be the last under her leadership, as she shifts base from Qatar to Europe.
Tell us more about how HWW came to be.
As a small group, the first thing we addressed was providing resources for each other, providing feedback for each other, connections. Helping each other out. That was the initial idea also with HWW. Then we realised it had to be commercially viable if we were to run it on that scale. So we added the professional development component to it, as I had a background in it.
When you say ‘we’, who were the key players in that?
Like everything in Qatar, it kept changing too. First the members of the small group. Some of them moved or had other challenges. I am really the only constant.
You are capturing something here, the lack of permanency. Do you sometimes feel you are doing the same thing again and again?
No. I feel that sometimes with building a new team, finding new volunteers. The conference has really moved forward and achieved a lot over the years. This is thanks to some strong partners, like Ooredoo, that have been with us for many years and supported us. We’ve had participants that have come regularly, which gives a continuity, from which I’ve been able to build.
But this is your last HWW?
Yes, for me. I am moving on. The conference will continue.
You spoke of the challenges at that point, which the group hoped to address. You think those challenges have changed now, for your current audience?
I think the isolation factor is not so high any more as there are more things for professional women going on now. More platforms to connect. Also social media is available now. There are more ways to connect.
The environment is always changing. One of the challenging things about Qatar is you never know what’s going to be next. You are often blindsided. That’s why we keep wanting to build networks. Personal networks we can go back to. Because we never know what the next challenge is going to be.
Are companies effectively investing in women employees? What are your insights?
For a while it was really a priority. During the years that I’ve been active. Probably 2011-2012 it was really strong. There were lots of initiatives. Companies were really looking out for women, and trying to do something about it.
Now I feel it’s kind of gone into the background and not so much of a priority for a lot of the companies.
Why do you think this is so?
I think policies have changed, and priorities. It makes a difference when there’s a role model out there in the public life, making the headlines. Like Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. There’s not such a strong role model any more. Even a lot of other women who were out there have retreated into the background I feel.
For organisations doesn’t it make economic sense to invest in women especially now, when the economy is down? Can it just be about lack of role model?
I think corporate culture here is very much influenced by what’s happening in the country. Obviously that makes a difference. You can still see in the multi-national companies that they are doing women’s initiatives, but they are not talking about it much anymore. Because it doesn’t seem a priority in the country. In the years 2011-12 it was an agenda point for the country. It was a lot more openly discussed all the time.
Was there an element of tokenism in the way companies recruited and trained women? Is that why this investment in women’s development ebbs and flows?
Maybe with some companies. But I do think there are other companies that have a genuine desire to make a difference. It is very much down to the individuals who are actually in-charge of these initiatives. I find that if you have a passionate individual in charge, you will feel it more strongly. That of course reflects on the company, but doesn’t always represent the company 100 percent.
Have you been able to address with companies equal pay for equal work
We have tried to have discussions on these key topics, and to bring in decision makers that actually could do something about it. We haven’t always succeeded. It can be challenging sometimes to get through to the right person. I think in terms of helping the women themselves, in terms of having confidence and better negotiation skills, those kinds of things, we have helped a lot. And also to have access to mentors, coaches and expert advice.
What issues have you and HWW effectively dealt with?
The main thing is connection. We’ve had so many success stories of women finding business partners or employment or clients. A lot of connections were made through HWW. To some extent changing the mindset of a lot of the women… we always emphasise going into collaboration, complementing each other instead of competing. I do think some mindsets have changed. When we started and had the first conference, this was the only conference in the country that had any interactive parts, workshops, breakout sessions… All the other conferences were off the stage, lecturing. Now I’ve noticed more and more conferences are having more interactive elements. I do think we had some influence on that.
A lot of the women-centric activities tend to be for nationals; HWW has addressed a larger group, been inclusive. Do you think companies have failed to see the potential in the large number of professional women who relocate with their spouses?
It’s still a minority of companies that tap into all that potential, which is actually a shame. These women are eager to work and have amazing qualifications and experience they bring with them. The other issue, reluctance to offer part-time or job share opportunities.
Will that change with downsizing and cost cuts?
We are trying to change that with some of the companies we work closely with. To offer job share and part-time opportunities to women. I do think it would be a good move if you are downsizing. There have been so many studies that prove that working mothers are actually more efficient. They want to keep their work and want to spend time with their children. So while at work they will be very efficient and get the job done. Tapping into this rich pool, I really think if it were part of the national development strategy, it would be great. A declared goal of the country.
You work with both experienced expatriate women and young nationals. Do you think there’s enough trust between these two groups? Or are they working in their own isolated spaces?
I think in general there is too much segregation. I think people are still thinking in terms of us and them. A lot. But this has been one of our main aims over the many years. We’ve always mixed people up, and helped them to get to know each other at a deeper level, not just how long have you been here and what do you do.
Put them together to talk about their life goals, to talk about the challenges they are facing… one of the most frequent feedback we have received is, ‘they are much more like us than we previously thought.’ That I feel is one big achievement HWW has managed, we have helped nationals and expats to understand that they were much more alike than they thought they were.
The seventh edition of the How Women Work Conference will be held on March 8-9, and the theme is “Connecting the Dots”. Zeitler says the theme is important nowadays, as it’s vital to stop thinking of business in the limiting terms of competition and to start investing more in connection and collaboration. “Innovation is the buzzword and it is all about combining old ideas, skills, resources and methods in new ways to create careers, business models, products and services.
“On the personal level, this can mean re-connecting skills in new ways to re-invent oneself; on the societal level this might mean joining hands to achieve more diversity in the workplace and on boards.”
For more information, check www.hwwqatar.com