Skip to main content

Advocating for Women in the Workplace, with Rana Nawas

Advocating for Women in the Workplace, with Rana Nawas

Episode 104: Advocating for Women in the Workplace, with Rana Nawas

Rana Nawas has spent her professional life standing up for women’s rights in the workplace in Dubai. As SVP of Capital Markets for GE, Rana pushed for better maternity leave policy and advocated for women at her company. As President of the Ellevate Dubai chapter, Rana creates opportunities for professional women to develop their careers and support one another. Rana’s next endeavor is her podcast, “When Women Win,” which highlights formidable women of the past and present. On this episode of the Ellevate Podcast, we talk to Rana about changing workplace policy and culture, how she manages her busy schedule, and what inspired her path to championing women.

Episode Transcript

00:10 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera.

00:19 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy. How's it going?

00:20 KW: It's going pretty good, really excited for summer to be here. I'm sick of cold weather.

00:27 MH: You don't have to tell me that.

00:29 KW: Yeah.

00:29 MH: I can't anymore.

00:31 KW: We talk about the weather a lot on this podcast.

00:32 MH: I know I was thinking that.

00:33 KW: Literally, we are two people that really embrace the sun.

00:38 MH: Well, I do think, to be honest, and we were talking about mental health the other day, but the weather's a huge thing. I get really off when the weather's not... When I'm not getting enough sunlight and sunshine and vitamin D, and I think we're all vitamin D-deficient, so.

00:57 KW: We are. Do you take vitamin D?

00:58 MH: I don't.

01:00 KW: You should.

01:01 MH: I should. I absolutely should. But hopefully, we're getting out of this horrible, horrible winter and into happier days and... Yeah.

01:11 KW: Well, and our guest today is certainly an inspiration for that, so Rana is actually an Ellevate Chapter leader in Dubai. She is the face of Ellevate in Dubai. She works really hard to support women in the UAE to give them that inspiration community and tools to get ahead, and she's a huge contributor to our community and always a person who has our back, giving us insights, advice, and opinions on how we can continue to succeed. So, exciting to talk to Rana because she is going through some great changes moving from corporate America, starting her own thing, starting a podcast, and I love those stories. I think, oftentimes, we feel that we can be stuck in a situation, and even if we like where we are and what we're doing, but what is that next step, and we don't have the motivation to go for that. So, she certainly did and that was... It was fun to hear her story.

02:13 MH: Rana is someone that's so passionate about what she does and about helping others and about really making things better. I think that's the way to phrase it. It's just, she's really passionate about improving, and helping, and growing. She's great.

02:32 KW: Yeah.

02:32 MH: And do you know what they're doing pretty soon in a few weeks in Dubai?

02:36 KW: The summit.

02:37 MH: Yeah, Dubai is hosting their annual forum, the annual Ellevate forum in Dubai. It's pretty big. It is the only other chapter, besides New York, that puts together a huge event like that and it's so inspiring. They've been doing it for years. They always have great reviews, and Rana has been a leader in making that what it is today.

03:00 KW: Yeah, yeah, I was supposed to be there. I'm super bummed that I will not be because travel, family, and work commitments all conspire against you sometimes, so it just doesn't work, but you have to learn when to say no.

03:15 MH: Right.

03:15 KW: And balance, so I'm not great at that, but I'm trying to not overextend myself.

03:22 MH: I was gonna say, I mean, you've been traveling a ton and you have three kids, and you are running the business and, yeah, cut yourself some slack, woman.

03:33 KW: You're stressing me out just saying that.

03:35 KW: Yeah, all good stuff. Ellevate is growing. We are doing a lot of work, a lot of advocacy. No, I don't wanna say that. We are launching new chapters and we are hosting even more events and just having an increasing impact on women in the professional space and on companies and their commitment to equality, so we're excited about that.

04:01 MH: It's amazing, it's amazing. We're going through a little bit of a growth spurt and some growing pains, and it is all wonderful.

04:09 KW: Absolutely. Well, let's hear the interview with Rana and meet us back here next week on the Ellevate Podcast.


04:24 KW: Rana, you've done some really amazing things, spent quite some time in the corporate world, leading initiatives for GE in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. And now, you're starting to branch out even further, so why don't you share a little bit with us about your journey and how you got to this point?

04:43 Rana Nawas: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. It's a real pleasure for me and I really appreciate your kind introduction and your lovely words. Thanks. Yes, 17 years in the corporate world. I worked a couple of years, initially, at McKinsey in London, and then I worked with the government of Dubai for a couple of years and then spent the last 13 with GE. And it's there that I discovered this passion that you mentioned of supporting women in the workplace. And I co-led the GE Women's Network for the region, the region being Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. I co-led that for three years and we grew it substantially from one chapter, if you like, to seven. And we focused a lot on advocacy, on trying to change policy. For example, at the time when I started, when I took over the Women's Network, the maternity-leave policy was the government statutory, which was 45 days of full pay. Now, 45 days is six weeks. I know you guys in the US have a whole n'other story, but in the rest of the world, that's really bad. That's really not enough.

05:52 RN: I went out to various multinationals in Dubai, Mars, Unilever, Johnson and Johnson, to see what they were doing, and they were really offering a lot more than statutory. A lot of them offered, for example, six months full pay or four months full pay, so I took... I benchmarked that and I took it back to our HR team. And to be fair to them, they listened. They said, "All right, look. Now, we need to do our own benchmarking and stuff and then we'll come back to you." And it took a couple of months and they came back to me and we managed to get the policy changed to three months full pay and up to three months unpaid at manager's discretion. See, I'm really pleased with that and it's been a lot of use to a lot of women I know, including myself. And that was a real success and a real need, I think, because we've found, certainly here in the region, if you don't provide proper maternity leave, you will lose good women and it just happens 'cause if they have to choose between looking after their child and going to work, guess what?

06:53 RN: Yeah, and then from there, it was just that sense. It was so rewarding to be able to deliver value to these ladies and to be in a position of influence and use it. And then when they invited me in 2015, the leaders of the Dubai Ellevate Chapter asked me to take over, it was a natural fit. It was a big confidence course, and it's a delight really to be able to work and support women from various multinationals and local companies here in Dubai. That's been my journey through women empowerment, how I got into it.

07:32 KW: That's an amazing story. I wanna talk a little bit more about the maternity-leave policy at GE. How did you approach that conversation? So, going to your employer and advocating for a policy or for a change that you really believed in. Was that intimidating? What did you do to prepare? Do you have any advice for our listeners who may be thinking about policies or programs that they really want within their companies that they wanna ask for?

08:00 RN: You need senior women to have this conversation. This is definitely, not that... We can't be naive about it. Myself and the other co-leader of the GE Women's Network were the two most senior women in the region, and we were on a business trip with the CEO of the region. We were in Algiers having dinner one night, and I just felt the time was right. There was two of us and him, so he was not in a position to run away. And the two of us senior got clout, been with GE, the two of us had been there for quite some time. We had track record. We had credibility, and so when we put it on the table in a very measured and matter-of-fact way, having done the research, he was willing to listen and he wanted to, and he was very approachable. S, I think several things happened here.

08:51 RN: Number one, it was senior women with credibility and track record at the company who broached the topic. Number two, we broached it at the right time when he was in a mood to listen. Number three, the president was open to it. Number four, we had the data from the other multinationals, and it would look bad, reputationally, if we're not meeting international standards in Dubai, so we had the data. And the fifth point I would say is we also, as the leaders of the Corporate Women's Network, we worked very closely with HR. You need that nexus. If you really wanna have impact, if you really work on an advocacy, you can't be in the business leasing aircraft and my co-leads are in communication. We're not gonna change policy. HR is gonna change policy, so you need to have developed a very strong relationship with HR. Those are the five things I would focus on.

09:49 KW: And what advice would you have to a professional who maybe is not senior, but really passionate about an issue? You talked about the relationships with HR. Is that also building relationships with others within your organization? Men and women who have the ability to be an advocate for you or to spark those conversations.

10:10 RN: I think if you are a junior woman really passionate about change, I think your passion will take you far, but if you don't have a long track record at the company, and you haven't built up that credibility, you can't just go to senior management and expect them to change things. What I would do, my advice to a junior lady is to get a sponsor, whether it's a senior woman or a senior man, a male ally, someone quite senior who will help you fight that battle because we can't be naive. It's hard. These conversations are difficult to have and your probability of success is much higher if it's somebody high up in the organization, so get an advocate.

10:56 KW: How did you drive that culture at GE? As you said, you're one of the most senior women in the region. You clearly had a huge influence on the culture there. Why was that important to you and what were some of the things that you did as a senior woman in business to embody that culture of mentoring sponsorship, supporting one another, and creating that culture?

11:19 RN: Well, first, let me give another example of how that's worked in GE. The role of the GE Women's Network is to be that ear and that sponsor to junior women in the organization. For example, a woman, a sort of middle, junior woman made the point, "Look, I'm back at work. I wanna breastfeed my child, but there's no pumping room, and so I'm going to the bathroom, and I'm sitting on the toilet, and I'm pumping, and it's miserable." And of course, I wasn't even having children and that sounded horrible to me. Immediately, we took that up with HR. We took it up, we the leaders. I went and I sat down with HR, and we talked about it. And then hey, presto, a couple of days later, we had a little room available with a fridge and a chair so she could go, she could sit in comfort, locked. Now, the room, at the time, it was another use room, so she had to go get a key, but it was still better than nothing until we had space for a pump room, sort of, in its own right. There are creative solutions.

12:27 RN: An office that's rarely used, for example, with a key, you go and you get the key. And it has such an effect, instead of sitting on the toilet. So all we needed, but I would never have thought of this. We rely on women and junior women to come to us and tell us what's going on with them. And then it's up to us to take that up with management and make change happen. And how do we do that? You asked about how we create that culture. It's all about people, Kristy. Right? It's all about people. It's about who's leading the network, it's about, for example, who's leading the chapter. It's all about leadership. That runs from the very top of the organization to the very bottom. If the president of the region, tone at the top is right, and he instills that in his direct reports, and it goes down, it cascades, and that's what has to happen.

13:19 RN: Now, where it often breaks down is, in fact, middle management, the men. The men, that's where we hit resistance. The CEO and the president will make all the right noises and the intention is there. His direct reports will feel the same way because it's drilled into them. But then, the next level down, they're under much more pressure, on quarterly numbers, etcetera. Things like this are a very, very low priority. It's not that they don't want it, but it's a low priority. And again, that's where the leaders of the Women's Network play a role in flagging it, and then roadblocks happen, again through the post relationship with HR, because that's not okay. It's not okay if you tell your manager, "I'm going, excuse me. I'm leaving for an hour to go to a GE Women's Network event," and he rolls his eyes and calls it a waste of time. That's not okay. That's not the culture we were going for. And that needs to change. That's a flag [14:18] ____.

14:20 KW: Yes. Yes, all around. I completely agree. And I think that's a really important point to make, is we've talked about giving women the freedom to have a voice, creating a culture that listens to and supports that voice, and looking at the barriers to change, and to really driving that culture. And I do think it is hard, that trickle-down effect. How can you maintain a culture when there's so many other factors at play, and when it's like a game of telephone sometimes, and I agree with you that there's a huge opportunity at that middle-manager level to try to build in, not just training and awareness, but the mechanisms and the support for them to really be managers focused on the people, as well, and creating, being ambassadors for that culture.

15:18 RN: Yeah, and one tactic that we've used, for example, is to highlight heroes of change. Middle managers are doing a great job at encouraging their women to attend events, and supporting them, and promoting. We highlight them. We build up a story, Champions of Change, etcetera, to motivate the guys around them to take notice of what's going on, and the president of the org. We flag it to their manager, and their one over one, and give an award. That's another tactic that can be used in the workplace. Men are very competitive. It works.

15:58 KW: Absolutely. I know you are also a busy mom. You and I actually talk about this and share stories quite a bit. How has that experience been? What are some of your tips that you can share with our audience around working, being the senior executive in business, and being a mom, and leading Ellevate in Dubai, leading the GE Women's group? You have a lot going on. What does your life look like?

16:28 RN: Yeah, it's very, very busy. And as you and I have discussed, Kristy, it's never easy. But it's not easy for anyone. I mean, it's not easy for the dad to go to work longer hours and barely see their kids. It's not easy for someone who's working full-time 'cause then the expectation, without kids, 'cause expectations on them are higher. It's not easy for anyone, but it's certainly not easy for working moms. And so I always say, my hero, if they ask me, "Who's your idol? Who's your hero?" And I say the every day working mom is my hero. Because every day, we make miracles happen, truly. I mean, for me, when I led, I have to sequence some things. For example, I led the GE Women's Network from 2011 to 2014, and then I took on Ellevate in 2015. It wouldn't have been possible to do it at the same time and have a life. Yeah, at the most intense is when I had my first child and I was employed full-time at GE and I just took on Ellevate and that was really, really busy, especially 'cause my job at the time involved a lot of travel.

17:37 RN: What I had to do, was I had to change roles 'cause I couldn't imagine doing my job, my travel... I was sales director for North Africa and Turkey and that's like five... My flights were between five and nine hours to my market, the markets I was covering. It wasn't like day trips. They were serious trips. Then I would do... In Turkey, I would go for a few days. North Africa, I would do maybe two or three countries in a week. The travel didn't work for me and I had to change my role. And I took a lateral move. The stars aligned, luckily, and I found another role in Dubai still that was challenging and interesting. That's one thing that I had to do. I had to make a choice about my role and that was fine. And I mean, like everyone, I guess, the most crucial thing is having a solid support network.

18:34 RN: And especially when... I mean, my babies are really young. Now, they're one and three. When I started the podcast, I was like, "Hang on, I'm working full-time, I'm doing Ellevate, I have two babies, and I'm starting a podcast?" When that got too much, then I had to make another choice and I said, "Okay, well, I'm gonna leave the corporate world now. I think it's time. I've been with GE 13 great years, learned a ton, done a lot, achieved a lot, and now I wanna focus on the podcast." Because I was getting and I am getting so much satisfaction from it, and I'm really... The feedback I get from listeners is that it's really impacting people. The listeners are really enjoying the show and for me, it's so rewarding. It's a no-brainer. I mean, 17 years in total in the corporate world, I'm in the mood for a change. And then the podcast I just started. I started a month before I quit and I'm really happy I've done it.

19:36 KW: Tell us more about this podcast. I know it's called When Women Win and I'd love to hear why did you start it, what are you doing on the podcast, what do you hope to accomplish?

19:48 RN: I came up with the idea for When Women Win around July last year, and that happened because I read a book by Iris Bohnet called What Works, which by the way, I absolutely recommend to every listener. It's the book on gender parity in the workplace. I came across it, I read it, loved it, and thought, "My god, I'd really like to talk to this professor." She's a professor at Harvard, the head of their women's program, and I thought, "Am I gonna get through?" And then I did. She's very approachable. But one thing I realized was through my network, I have access, through Ellevate, through my work with Ellevate over the years, my work with GE, I've just got this massive network. I have access to incredible women all over the world. I mean, formidable women across all sectors.

20:44 RN: And what hit me was that not every woman has that. Every interaction I have with these women, I am inspired and I am enriched, and this happens to me on an almost daily basis. And when I realized that other women aren't getting that every day in their lives, I thought, well, wouldn't it be great to capture these conversations and make them available to women everywhere, so they can have access to these role models. And that's really how the podcast came about. It's purely to give women everywhere access to awesome role models that they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to.

21:21 KW: Who are some of the guests you've had on your podcast?

21:24 RN: Professor Iris Bohnet was my first guest because she really... I mean, it was that interaction that made me think, "I should do something with this." I've had a couple of fabulous entrepreneurs, one here in Dubai, and one from Canada. I've had Dr. Auma Obama, President Obama's sister. She's an incredible woman doing amazing humanitarian work in Western Kenya and revolutionizing the way they approach philanthropy in Western Kenya. I've had Assia Grazioli-Venier, who's the first-ever female board member on a international soccer team. This is Juventus in Italy. They're like Serie A, they're 100-years old and so she is their first woman and the youngest ever member of their board.

22:14 RN: We've had a princess from Luxemburg, so that was fun. We had Christina Kuzmych, who I'm sure if any of your listeners would know, a celebrity mom, hilarious lady, super genuine, a lot of fun. And yeah, I highly recommend that episode. We've had an Indian, filmmaker, Vibha Bakshi, who has tackled, who created a documentary about sexual violence in India which took on a life of its own, and she's created a massive national movement across India on this issue. Just super-impactful women.

22:51 KW: I'm getting chills hearing some of these names because I think we hear so much about the lack of women in leadership, the lack of women on boards, and in politics, and in all of these areas, and we need to be talking more about just the sheer amount of women who are doing unbelievable things, who are changing the world, who are inspiring others, who are just really living their lives to the fullest and their best selves. And there are women that you mentioned that I'm in awe and inspired by. And it's a lot of what we try to do on the podcast here, is like how can we get those stories out there? How can we do more to talk about the women who are really changing the world and changing the face of business? And I'm excited for your podcast.

23:46 RN: Thank you. Yeah, every episode is a different woman who's doing just that.

23:49 KW: Yeah. That's amazing. When women win, we all win, huh?

23:55 RN: Yeah, exactly. This is one of my lines actually on my website. I say, "When women win, we all rise."

24:03 KW: That's true. That is so true.

24:05 RN: Yeah. It's a line of mine. And actually, my Instagram feed, I have sort of... I announce the When Women Win episodes, but also, I almost, a bit, I guess about once a week, I feature a woman from history. Sometimes I've got the odd contemporary ones 'cause you can't have a feed about awesome women without having Oprah in it, for example. But yeah, so I also feature in my Instagram feed regularly, women from history who've created change, just to remind people that we've been changing the world forever. Whether it's Emmeline Pankhurst, or Zaha Hadid, the architect, or Eleanor Roosevelt, we need to highlight these... Amelia Earhart. These kinds of women that we've had, that don't obviously, they didn't get the coverage in their day. And we mustn't forget the gift they gave us. But I'm also very focused on women of the past, as well as the present through the podcast.

25:04 KW: That's fantastic. Final kind of fun question, but we've talked so much about the things you've accomplished, and what you're doing. What do you do to recharge?

25:17 RN: I play with my one-year-old. He's just a barrel of joy. He's just such an incredible kid. But also, I won't lie, I like my moments with a cup of tea and a book. If I could just be alone in the quiet, so it's one of the two extremes. Either I'm playing with my one-year-old and it's all crazy, or I lock myself in my bedroom, I sit on my bed, I read my book, and I have my cup of tea.

25:41 KW: That sounds like something I would love to be doing right now, so that sounds amazing.

25:45 RN: For me, that's a holiday. If I can do that, if I can escape to that, that's a holiday right there.

25:51 KW: That's fantastic. Well, thanks for joining us on the Ellevate Podcast. It was great to chat with you, Rana.

25:56 RN: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

25:58 KW: Absolutely.

26:02 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out! Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network dot com.

26:34 KW: And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook: