Participants of Women Take the Lead Network discuss leadership, business and the realities of day-to-day work in both Denmark and Egypt (Photo: Rowan El Shimi // DEDI)
Women Take the Lead network provides the opportunity for its participants – from across sectors in Denmark and Egypt – to make a deeper, more personal connection. The 22 women meet for the first time in Copenhagen in August.
By Rowan El Shimi
In a busy restaurant in Copenhagen, one warm evening in August, 22 women from Egypt and Denmark meet for the first time – in a non-virtual setting at least. They’ve been getting together since they were all selected to be members in the Women Take the Lead Network: the first time in March with each delegation meeting and then in June when they had a virtual meeting bringing everyone together.
This is the launch of the first international workshop taking place within the network’s program. For the next three days the women would go on to visit some of the Danish participants’ workplaces, cycle together around Copenhagen, go singing as well as spend hours together in conversations and debates.
“Besides being from different countries we come from different sectors: the public, the private, some work in companies, some work in family businesses, some in startups and some in civil society so it’s such a variety but also we share similar challenges and values that bring us all together,” Alexandra Singpiel, a Project Manager at the Danish Refugee Council says.
For Alexandra Singpiel, it has been a huge privilege to be a part of this network. “The past days have clearly shown that we face similar challenges and it’s always nice to support each other and also in part validate each other – it’s not just me, it’s also systemic issues that are challenging to all of us. It’s really useful when being in doubt having a network to go back to that can tell you that you’re doing a good job and it’s not your fault all the time.”
The value of networking
Besides the benefits of belonging and feeling validated networks have been proven to improve the lack of gender equality in leadership.
“Professional women need role models. Because not so many women are top leaders in organizations, younger women need somebody to relate to and need different pictures of how it’s done. That’s why networks for women are important,” Margrethe Mortensen, Lecturer at COP Business School and Women Take the Lead Network Co-Facilitator says.
Network Co-facilitator Menas Saleh shares a similar sentiment. “Women network in a different way. A man may hand over a business card and start a formal discussion and be able to benefit from that networking. Women actually need to make a personal connection to network and have deeper conversations that help them connect – this is what we’re hoping to do with this network is to make that connection,” she explains. Menas Saleh is also a career coach and a Women Take the Lead Network Alumna.
Women should be nice, not assertive
As part of the philosophy of peer-to-peer learning that the workshop followed, participants were invited to host their own talks about issues they felt were important and wished to raise with the group.
Mette Kristoffersen hosted a talk entitled ‘Unconscious Bias’ where she discussed women’s reluctance to being assertive feeling they will be perceived as bossy (and how in fact that is how they are perceived – even by other women). She is a Senior Manager at Bain & Company consulting firm.
This opened the floor for many observations on work cultures in both Denmark and Egypt and several participants shared their experiences on how their employers and colleagues differentiate in how they see women and men – and how women’s lack of going for what they want can hinder them in their careers.
Structural issues all over the world
“There is a huge difference between cultures, work environments and eco-systems in Denmark and Egypt,” Norhan Bader, Program Manager at Gozour Foundation for Development says. “That said, we see a lot of the same issues faced in both countries when it comes to women’s careers. Coming together inspires us on how we can address these issues we are facing,” she adds.
Some might think that Denmark is much more advanced when it comes to women’s rights and their positions in the workforce in comparison to Egypt – and in many aspects it’s fair to assume so. However, when it comes to the ratio of women to men employed in senior roles in both the private and public sectors, Denmark ranks number 101 while Egypt ranks 129 out of the 156 countries included in the Global Gender Report of 2021.
“We have a very stigmatized image about Egypt and maybe even the whole Middle-East. But Egypt has 100 million people, so maybe the stigmas are true in some instances but it’s definitely not true for all groups as it’s a very diverse country,” Regitze Sdun, Head of Data Science and Engineering at corti.ai reflects. “For example, I thought women in Egypt were more restricted, but I see a lot of people here with a lot of really cool positions working in very male-dominated areas which I did not expect.”
“Danes think they are very advanced when it comes to gender and women’s rights – and they have certainly have come very far. But I think it’s been good for us to reflect on this and realizing that we still have similar challenges to the ones they have in Egypt so it’s not like we can stop the fight for equal rights for both genders. It’s important to realize that we’re not done yet – we’re far from being done.” Alexandra Singpiel says. “On one level it’s very frustrating to see that we face the same issues in both Denmark and Egypt and that there is no one place where it’s really fair. But it’s very encouraging to see that maybe in one instance Denmark has found a great solution for a work challenge but in another Egypt could be having great solution. Learning from each other is a huge added value of this network.”
Visiting Denmark and having three full days and one evening to spend together inspired the participants both from the city, the companies they visited and the conversations with their Danish and Egyptian peers.
“I’m very inspired by the work environment here in Denmark. There is a lot of flexibility that allows women to have space to work beyond the regular mandate of having 9 to 5 hours,” Norhan Bader reflects. “Visiting workplaces from fields different to mine were also very inspiring to be able to see how companies function, how I can incorporate the digital tools in development work and learn more about those fields.”
For Roaa Ahmed one of the things that really struck her was Copenhagen itself.
“After the sightseeing, visits and tours I can observe how the architecture, design of infrastructure and public transport can be a huge factor in how productive we are at work, how we function, how we take certain decisions,” she says.
Roaa Ahmed is the Strategic Growth Manager Chefaa and Regional manager META special project, so she spends much of her time thinking of productivity and efficiency in the workplace and employees well-being.
While Copenhagen itself was a big part of Roaa Ahmed’s experience, the personal connections made with the other participants were also extremely valuable.
“It’s wonderful to get the opportunity to share experiences throughout the different sessions. There were moments where we were very vulnerable. We opened up. We found out that a lot of things are very common in terms of challenges, opportunities and how we process and deal with things in our lives,” she explains. “The design of the program or the network itself enables us to have these open spaces for conversations, to share experiences and learn from each other. It’s not that the WTL team is giving us information or specific knowledge – it’s built more on peer-to-peer learning,” she adds.
“I think we underestimate the need to belong to a group that has similar challenges.
You think you’re alone, but you’re not. The biggest thing women will get from this network is that they’re not alone and hopefully they can continue to use the network and benefit after the workshops are over as they have this network already,” Menas Saleh, facilitator and Women Take the Lead Network Alumna concludes.
This project was managed by Project Officer Doaa Fayyad and Facilitated by Margrethe Lyngs Mortensen and Menas Saleh.