The role of women in research: Professor Zahir Irani, head of Brunel Business School

Written by
Changeboard Team

16 Jun 2014

16 Jun 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Middle Eastern women in Western countries

For women in the Middle East, studying overseas has traditionally been made difficult – if not impossible – by cultural differences with the West. This has prevented many women from benefitting from the academic rigour and traditions of the best British and American universities and exposure to the latest thinking and culture of intellectual exploration and challenge. It has also meant businesses in the region have been cut off from the new perspectives and thinking of women involved in HR and business research.

“A female contribution is a must,” says PhD student Najma Taqi. “Research has shown the importance of women for economic growth. I believe women can play a huge role.”

A gap in understanding

Ebtesam Al-Alawi, another student embarking on research, points to the lack of understanding of the role of women in business life. “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 says. “High-level research is needed to consider the problems faced by female entrepreneurs, their administrative practices and their abilities for achieving success, gender differences, conflicts between their work and families, and the vision they have for their enterprises.”

At a time when innovation is at a premium for organisations globally and there are serious people development and management issues to be addressed, more must be done to help Middle Eastern women engage in high-level HR research.

The need to address the diversity issue was a key factor driving our work at Brunel Business School in London and in forming a partnership with Ahlia University in Bahrain. Our joint offering of a PhD without residence allows people to undertake a British research degree locally. This is an important progression from distance learning because it provides an alternative to lone part-time PhD study that tends to have poor completion rates. Local partnerships mean that British-approved supervision can be based locally, providing the kinds of supervision and resources available in the UK with extra specialist faculty flown in for summer and winter school sessions. PhD students need only travel to London once, for their oral ‘viva voce’ defence of their thesis on campus.

The evidence of the actual need for alternative provision for women is demonstrated by applications to the new programme. Half of the participants, recruited from across the region and including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are women. This is a higher percentage than we would expect for this type of higher research degree.

Building transferrable skills

“Being able to work for my degree on my own personal project, with all the freedom I like, is ideal for me,” says Najma Taqi, a female student. “I’ve been developing my transferrable skills much more than I expected to do, attending workshops and training, taking opportunities to present to various audiences and travelling to conferences.”

As a working mother, Ebtesam Al-Alawi has valued the level of support provided by this kind of local arrangement. “With my hectic schedules, being forced to face life’s daily obstacles as a business owner, active member of society and a PhD student, I have valued having constant support to help me commit to the programme,” she says.

Keeping a local focus on research activity allows topics to be concentrated on regional issues that matter to individuals and/or their sponsoring companies. The programme attracts research subjects that are relevant to the region and, since the students don’t relocate, a knowledge economy is created there which promotes growth. Thesis topics have included 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.

Women as leaders and entrepreneurs

Layla Faisal Alhalwachi is exploring the nature of women’s representation in the corporate boards and the barriers that exist. She explains: “I believe this is one of the hottest topics around the world – especially in the context of the Middle East. Women here have been given less access to senior leadership posts and my study aims to contribute solutions to levelling the playing field.”

The challenges faced by women entrepreneurs is being researched by Najma Taqi. “I am analysing the barriers and success factors of small business entrepreneurship for females in developing countries,” she says. “The outcomes of this study will help different regions and organisations to avoid failures and confront entrepreneurial challenges specific to women.”

Ebtesam Al-Alawi is investigating team turnover and team effectiveness outcomes: “This is empirical research based on a model developed to test the relationship between total turnover (voluntary and involuntary) and performance effectiveness, attitudes outcomes and behaviour outcomes,” she explains. “Team turnover can lead to dysfunctional effects such as additional indirect costs incurred for disruption of social and communications structures, reduced morale and the possibility of increased absence and more turnovers.”

The local university is able to develop its own research agenda and attract high quality staff, offering PhD research student capacity as part of its attraction and retention strategy. This helps to differentiate Ahlia from other private universities. The programme itself also promotes dialogue and research between UK and Bahraini-based academics, helping to build knowledge and research capacity.

The number of opportunities is likely to grow, especially with British universities, which are seeing the importance of being outward-looking and forming partnerships overseas. This can only be a positive development in terms of encouraging access, involving more women and getting important new ideas heard.