Game Changer: Meet the Dubai Mom Who Is Also a Powerful Executive

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Pregnancy and Motherhood, Demystified: The Personal Account of a Dubai Mom
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Rania Masri
Photo: Courtesy of Rania Masri

Rania Masri seems to have things figured out. She’s a mother to two beautiful girls, Ayah and Lulwa, wife to Anwar, and Chief Transformation Officer of one of the biggest fashion empires of the Middle East, The Chalhoub Group. When I meet her in her office for our interview, she’s dressed in fitted jeans, a well-tailored navy blazer, and towering stilettos. All this in a day and age where most of us struggle to find the time to wash our hair and rely on a steady supply of dry shampoo.

I’m curious – as I’m sure you are too – about how she juggles it all; what role her partner plays, how she communicates her situation to her organization, and what support system she has built to set herself up for success. Here, Masri talks openly about the struggles of being a working mom, the importance of having an involved husband, and the kind of change she hopes to bring at Chalhoub.

Was it always your intention to be a working mom, or did you expect to stop working when you had children?
Children were always a part of the plan. I always dreamt of meeting the perfect man to have children with, so I’ve always wanted that. I also had a “working mom” myself, so it was something that I always pictured myself to be.

When I started working, it was partly because I needed to and partly because of a passion. So when I met my husband, I was working from day one of our relationship. He was used to it because that’s all he knew – me traveling as much as I did and having the schedule that I did.

When I got pregnant and we started planning around our family, there was of course a discussion about how we would do it. When you are a couple living alone, you don’t usually have live-in help, but if you want to have children and both continue working, a lot of planning has to go into it to figure out how you’re going to manage.

If you can make it through that first child, you’ll make it through all the other children.

I think that it’s hardest with your first child. Looking back and looking at a lot of the new moms in the company, if you can make it through that first child, you’ll make it through all the other children. As an employer and as a company, you need to be aware that it is a very important period in a woman’s life and that this is when you get the most drop-outs. What you feel as a first-time mom is so surreal that you don’t know how to deal with these emotions, no matter what age you are. You also feel guilty about leaving your child. So that is the doubt that you go through or the fear that you need overcome.

How long was your first maternity leave?
When I had Ayah, my firstborn, the maternity leave in the company was 45 days. I wanted to deliver close to my mom, who lives in Montreal, which meant that a big bulk of that was taken up while I was still pregnant. I took some leave days to compensate, but it was very quick. I didn’t take a lot of time; I went, delivered in Montreal, and came back to Dubai. At that point, I hired a nanny to help, but it was still very tough to come back to work when she was such a small child. She was not even three months old.

How have you set up your network around you to be able to return to work? Do you have close family in the UAE? 
I have cousins that I consider family here, but I don’t have my mom or my sister. I think that the most important element in the equation is your partner, if you’re not a single mom or single dad. If you want to succeed and if you want to be at peace, you need to have a partner that is very much willing to be a big part of this. We discuss everything together because, for instance, if you take on a new role at work, that will change the dynamics at home. We also have two strict rules that we follow. First, we don’t travel at the same time for work, so we always coordinate with each other. Second, we are always at home (with a few exceptions) for dinner, bath time, and to put the girls to bed.

We are also extremely blessed in this part of the world to have affordable and trustworthy live-in childcare. A lot of my colleagues have also put their kids in nurseries, so that’s another option.

Your support system is your partner, your helper, but also your friends who become family. I am friends with a group of moms and we all support each other – from play dates to who is going to do pick-ups and drop-offs. Without them, Ayah wouldn’t be able to go to dance classes twice a week for instance.

Your support system is your partner, your helper, but also your friends who become family.

How old is your youngest?
Lulu is two and a half now.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. The problem in an expat city like Dubai is that a lot of people have left their native country and are far from their “village”. As a result, you end up having to build your own village wherever you go – hence the importance of a support network.
There is that, yes. There is definitely the village with Ayah. With Lulu, I think that being part of a gated community, where we live in Dubai, has been the biggest blessing for me, because the nannies there have a network. They all know the other nannies looking after kids that are of a similar age, and so they organize play dates. My house is full of kids every day because of that. It’s so safe and they go walking everywhere, so I don’t have to think about drivers and all. I’ve also made new friends through that network myself.

There are also more and more cool startups that are coming up to solve pain points for women like me. For instance, there’s a new company of cars with drivers that are nannies, so they can take your kids around town if needed. It’s called Hubun. I’m looking forward to trying it. Careem also did something similar with ‘Careem Kids’, but you have to send your nanny with the driver.

So, yes, there are more and more solutions available, but still I’ll be in meetings and have to be on my phone. People must think I’m so rude sometimes, but while the meeting is happening I am coordinating with our nanny, answering Ayah, I am messaging my husband Anwar to tell him about something to do with our children. So you are always on; you are never off. I don’t want to compare it to men, but then again I have to. Back in the day, once men left the house, they knew their kids were in good hands because they were with their mom, and they could disconnect. They would focus fully on their work and then come back home.

You are lucky that you have a husband who is willing to put up with 50 percent of the work, because I have spoken to a lot of women who would tell me flat out, “My husband is not involved.”
The older I get, the stronger my voice becomes on this topic. I find it so unfair and frustrating. There was a point when I used to say that we needed to have equal rights at the office. Now, I don’t think it’s about equality; it’s not about making one size fits all. It’s about making a place that can fit all the different teams. Women are just different from men. We are different; I don’t want the same things as a man because I can’t disconnect during that time if he has his wife at home.

I don’t think it’s about equality; it’s not about making one size fits all.

The playing field is uneven. The first person a school will contact is the mom, not the dad yet. When I ask Anwar to go to a school meeting or event when I can’t be away from work, he is the only man in the room. Maybe there are two others on a good day. I really hope that someday it will be a lot more. When I ask my girlfriends if it’s the same thing in Canada, they say that the room is literally half men and half women.

The Whatsapp school group? I didn’t add Anwar to it because there is not a single dad on it, so I am constantly forwarding him things. That means that it is often your responsibility as a mother. Even if he wants to help, what happens is you end up delegating.

But that’s just the status quo. And I try to challenge that. For example, when I wake up in the morning, I know in my head that I need to make sure that Ayah has specific things in her bag before she goes to school. I asked Anwar, “Do you ever think in the morning when she packs her things that she needs her dance clothes in her bag?” And he says, “No, Did I have to?” I tease him. I know that, if I told him, he would do it, but it’s the fact that I am still the one that has to think about it. It’s almost instinctual. He is willing to help, but he is not wired to instinctively do things.

And that is what makes this so much more difficult to manage, especially in an environment of work. That’s why I say the playing field is not even. So when people say we want equality, we want to even things out, we’re not there. We are physically not the same. Our biology is different. We don’t need an even playing field; we need a field that is designed to support women.

We pushed our maternity leave from 45 to 70 days and are studying the possibility of making it even longer. It is key to have women in decision making roles, to influence and push these changes.

We don’t need an even playing field; we need a field that is designed to help women.

Is there a specific conversation that women need to have with their employer? Are there things that you can do to make balancing work and being a mother easier?
I think there is a huge responsibility on the organization. I am fortunate to have been in this company for 13 years, so I can speak up and ask for things. When you are still starting out, however, you are probably not as confident to speak up because this is about policies, this is about things that are trying to change the status quo a little bit within the organization.

So the responsibility is on the organization to give to its employees and to better understand them. One of the biggest trends in organizations today is mapping the employee journey. When you talk about employee experience or employee journey, you look at all the touchpoints that are important in their life, which could be when you sadly lose someone, when you get married, or when you have a child. These are all key moments in a person’s life, so we need to be adapted to make sure that we are creating a friendly and comfortable environment for them to experience these milestones. Organizations are sometimes disassociated from this. And with the growing number of women coming into the work place, if they don’t change their approach, they will eventually lose because they will lose touch and lose connection with these women.

Another thing to consider is flexibility. At the end of the day, what matters most is the output. I believe that all employers should be flexible – especially with a mother who is coming back to work – so long as the work is getting done. My team, for example, doesn’t have a nine-to-five job. As a manager, I can’t be preaching if I don’t practice. My team works harder than you could imagine, but they go out, they laugh, they have fun, and then they finish their work, which is the way I work as well. At 5:30, I pack my things and I am out of here. Then I’ll start again later after the kids are sleeping. That’s the kind of flexibility that makes a huge difference.

If your employer trusts you and is flexible, as an employee, you’ll have more confidence speaking to them. If you feel like your organization makes it a point to accommodate your needs, then you’ll feel more comfortable talking about it. If it’s not being discussed, then you’ll be the only voice, you will either end up quitting your job or suffering in silence. In my case, it’s the trust and flexibility that made me stick around!

I believe that all employers should be flexible – especially with a mother who is coming back to work – so long as the work is getting done.

I’ve heard of companies in the UAE having a designated maternity room where women could pump when they’re breastfeeding. That seems to be a good step forward.
Yes, but if the company is run or managed by only men, in all fairness, you need to bring certain things to their attention. For instance, when we first requested a maternity room, it was mistaken for a nursery!

There is a whole awareness and education part that needs to happen, and we had to do that in order to get the maternity room. We now have one in this building, and we have one in our office in Jebel Ali. But that’s not all. You then have to figure out what it is that you need to put in a maternity room!

What would that be?
It has to be a private room, first of all. Then you have to put a comfortable chair, a plug, and a fridge. There also needs to be a sink for sanitization. Ideally, either you bring your pump from home or sometimes offices will put a hospital pump. We requested a hospital pump in our maternity rooms. In my experience, the manual one takes twice as long, so I asked: “Do you want me to be productive or not? I don’t want to spend my time pumping, I want to get back to work, so get me the thing that can help me pump in 15 minutes.”

Was there a maternity room at Chalhoub when you were pregnant with Ayah?
No – I went and bought a fridge and put it under my desk. I would put a post-it on my door to let my team know that I was pumping and not to come in!

When I was on the go for meetings and had to pump in bathroom stalls, I would get bored and post a picture of my pump and shoes with a caption like, “Pumping in Chanel.”

The veil of taboo is finally being lifted around these topics. It’s a big shift that is happening and it needed to happen. You and I had spoken about Indra Nooyi, the former CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo., who is admired by many women for her ability to make it to the proverbial top as a working mother. That being said, I have heard it be debated many times that what allowed her to do that was acting more like a man than a woman. In her own words, her children would probably tell you that she was a terrible mother. What do you think about that?
I can believe that. In my own experience, I had to do that – to “act like a man” – at the beginning in order to succeed. But then I saw an interview with Angela Ahrendts, who was the CEO of Burberry at the time, and she was explaining that she is very motherly with her team; she is emotional, she cries sometimes, and she manages like a woman. That was the first time I had heard a senior female executive say that she managed like a woman – and to say it so confidently! It’s something that I say now all the time and I own it. I do think that a shift has happened, allowing us to act more like women in the workplace.

That being said, I am a senior in the company, so it’s one thing for me to say that after having been here for many years. If you have the same conversation with more junior people in your organization, they are not all having the same experience. So many female juniors feel like their male managers just don’t get it. They still feel that it’s a struggle, that you can’t show your vulnerability when you have to be there for your kids. There are still meetings being scheduled out of habit at 6 p.m. that they have to attend, otherwise they miss out.

Do you feel like the longer you have been here, the more you have climbed up the ladder, the more exceptions are made for you or the more flexibility you have?
I am not sure if it is because of my seniority. I think that each experience can be different, and that is why I go back to say that it is the responsibility of the organization to make sure that, within their culture and their core processes, there is fairness to everyone.

Could you give me a few examples of the changes an organization could implement in that vein?
For instance, when someone on a team gives birth, the HR department could speak to her team ahead of her coming back to discuss her new situation, when it’s appropriate to schedule meetings, etc. A conversation would need to be had with the woman herself as well to raise awareness about her rights, to explain her flexibility, tell her that she can use the maternity room, and so on. There is a process to go through.

It needs to be institutionalized as opposed to on a case-by-case basis.
Exactly.

How do you prioritize between work and family?
When you are a young mom, or a new mom, you are very hard on yourself. That is in part thanks to what you see on TV or on social media, which is so far from the truth. Priorities will differ from mom to mom, because what you value is very different from one person to another. The way you raise your kids, the way you want to be as a mother is different – and again I tell you this as a 40-year-old woman. I probably wouldn’t have had the same conversation with you at 32.

I remember being 32 and having just had Ayah, and the main thing that I used to focus on was that quality is more important that quantity. So it was okay that I wasn’t really there during the week so long as weekends were sacred and uninterrupted for our family. But, one day, our CEO Patrick Chalhoub told me that it’s not only the quality, it is also the quantity that matters, which means you also need to spend time with your kids. That really resonated with me and shook me because I firmly believed that I could be gone for two weeks to Fashion Week and make it up over two days at home.

When it comes to prioritizing now, I look at moments in my daughter’s life that are special to her, not just to me, because what is going to matter is her, not just me. I sometimes can’t make Ayah’s dance shows and, when I tell her that, she gets upset. So what I promised her was that there would always be either me or her father. The chances of both of us being there all the time is low, but one of us will always make it. I prioritize being there for the important times.

Do you take time off when they are sick?
Yes, and I have to take it as a leave day, which is not right. I am working on changing this, because it’s not a leave day that is for me. I am not resting or enjoying myself. My kid is sick and she needs me.

It’s also either me or Anwar who is there when they are sick. Ayah got sick three days ago and she was throwing up all night, and in the morning I had a flight to catch to Jeddah. I woke up in the morning and Anwar had already gone to work. Again, this is why I tell you that the men are not wired to think like we do. He didn’t think, “I should probably stay.” So I called him to say that one of us had to be there, and he came back home.

Is he self-employed?
No.

How understanding is his company?
They are not, but it takes a very confident man to do what he does. He probably gets eye rolls when he tells people he has to go home because his kid is sick – like don’t you have a wife who can handle that? But he is very confident about it.

Women who are really heavily involved in furthering this cause will tell you that we will not evolve if we don’t evolve the benefits for fathers.

There are changes that need to happen as far as how women with children are treated in a company, but also how a man with children is treated in a company.
One hundred percent. It’s almost counter-intuitive to certain people. Women who are really heavily involved in furthering this cause will tell you that we will not evolve if we don’t evolve the benefits for fathers. Fathers have to also have the options of being there.

Does Chalhoub give paternity leave?
Yes – it used to be three days as per labor law, and we moved it to seven days now. There’s still a long way to go, but I think we are slowly getting there.

How do you deal with mom guilt?
You don’t. I mean I am 42 years old and my mom still feels guilty. I also have wife guilt; sometimes I am too busy to give him time too. If you love someone a lot, you are always going to feel guilty when you can’t. I think we are wired this way, especially as women, because we are nurturers. But you can’t be too hard on yourself or you won’t be a good wife and mom.

You have to toughen up, even if it kills you. Yes, your children will say that you’re not around and you’ll just need to swallow that. Make it a point to really enjoy the moments with them, really take them in.

Do you think that schools still have a long way to go in accommodating working moms?
You should read my e-mail to the head of Ayah’s school [laughs]. I wrote to them at the start of the school year saying that I hoped that they would no longer discriminate against kids whose moms were working. They organize last-minute things in the middle of the day that you obviously cannot attend because you are at work, and your kids have to see all of their friends’ moms there – and you aren’t. It puts so much stress on both working parents and your kids feel left out, so that is also a form of discrimination. Even after my e-mail, nothing changed, but I have hope that it will, because so many more women are working now.

I’ll give you an example. As a Lebanese family living in the UAE, we celebrate the Arabic Mother’s Day. I happened to be in Hong Kong for work over the American Mother’s Day and the school decided to host a celebration. I told the teacher that I was not going to send her to school that day because I didn’t want her to feel bad when all of her friends’ moms showed up, and she assured me that there wasn’t going to be much happening so it was okay to send her. As it turns out, they ended up doing this whole song and performance. I received a video of my daughter Ayah, looking down and sulking. Luckily, one of the moms, who also happens to be my friend, took such great care of her in that moment. Ayah gets it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel really bad.

How do you explain to a child why you work and another mom doesn’t? Do they ask about that?
Yes, of course they do. Anwar and I read books to her about amazing women doing incredible things in the world – they’re called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. She’s obsessed with them and is all about “girl power. Ask Ayah about Frida Kahlo or Ellen Degeneres and she will tell you all about them. She actually dressed up as Ellen last Halloween. She sees women as heroes, not princesses. She actually said to me once when I was working, “You have a super power; it’s called multi-tasking.”

[My daughter] sees women as heroes, not princesses.

Do you feel like your career path or trajectory slowed down because of being a mother? Or do you think that it would have happened the same way had you not had children?
If you’re asking about my personal experience, I don’t believe that it slowed down. Having said that, I do believe that there are women in who do lose out, for example, if they can’t travel for a meeting and someone else goes in their place and they get the promotion instead. But personally that didn’t happen to me, again because I had a very strong partner through all of it.

However, I see huge missed opportunities in some women, because I know what they’re capable of but I also know that they were held back by their husbands. Their partners weren’t okay with them traveling, for example, or they made them feel guilty about being away from the kids.

You touched on something before that I’d like to go back to; you said “to lead like a woman”. What leadership qualities do you feel that a woman or a mother may have over a man, and what have you noticed in the women that you work with?
The statistics of companies led by women versus those led by men speak for themselves. What I think that I bring, as a woman, that most men don’t is the nurturing aspect. I lead my team as a family and I lead my family as a team. I can feel when someone is down – I think that’s my maternal part. Also, when two people on my team are not getting along, I really feel that negative energy and I can’t concentrate. Some men have these abilities, but they are then described as being in touch with their “feminine” side.

I hate when a woman is described as being “sensitive” or “aggressive”. I actually had a notebook that said, “I am not aggressive. I am assertive.” The more I look at it, the more I realize that a lot of the women that are very assertive are considered aggressive, and it’s turning against them with men, which is worrying. This is again that bias, that conditioning, which needs to change.

There are other aspects of being a woman, however, that can work against us. For instance, did you know that women will always under-evaluate themselves in a self-evaluation at work, whereas men will overvalue themselves? So this is something that the organization has to be aware of. Similarly, women will only apply to a role if they think that they meet 90 percent of its requirements, whereas a man will apply if he ticks 50 or 60 percent of the boxes. My friend Rana Nawas has a podcast called When Women Win, highlighting incredible women leaders in the workplace. She teaches me a lot about these small elements to watch out for and that can bring big change in an organization.

All that being said, I wouldn’t want my team to be made up of just women. I want diversity. Apart from my first mentor, who was a woman, the leaders that I have had and the people who have inspired me were also men. What they all have in common is empathy and emotional intelligence, which were really important to me as values.