Queen of the mountain

Shell Egypt chairwoman Iman Hill challenges companies to be more inclusive of women and minorities. She tells Arabian Business what works and what doesn’t.

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By  Elizabeth Drachman Published  January 16, 2005

Energy|~||~||~|The admiration of Shell Egypt boss Iman Hill is obvious. Employees trail her, requesting pearls of wisdom before they pitch their company in front of crowds. Just do it, is her advice. Practice makes perfect, she tells them. The diminutive chairwoman’s confidence comes from years of experience in the oil and gas industry, one of the most male-dominated sectors around. Hill, born of an Egyptian mother and Palestinian father, began her career in 1984 as a petroleum engineer with BP, after graduating from the University of Aberdeen with degrees in biochemistry and computer science. After nearly 14 years in technical positions, she joined Shell in 1997. Since then, she has worked through the ranks, mostly in management and advisory posts from Malaysia to the Netherlands to her current job as chairwoman in Egypt. Hill says her success comes from knowing the energy business inside and out. “I spent almost 14 years in a solid technical grounding where I gained a deep understanding of the business. I can use that now to focus on managing the business and managing people. For me, that was extremely important,” she says. For the 31 women at Shell Egypt, not only is Hill a role model, but she has also proven herself a smart boss: she shepherded the production of the Sheiba discovery in the Western Desert, the first commercial oil discovery in the eastern part of North East Abl Gharadig. While Hill does not like to talk too much about her struggles as a woman, she often speaks on the more general topic of diversity in the workplace. “A lot of progress has been made [regarding women in the workplace], and we need to celebrate that and understand what’s at the root of that progress. But we’ve got to be careful to make sure we don’t become complacent,” she says. “We need to know what the next steps are and what things will make this sustainable so that in generations to come we are no longer talking about scorecards, diversity or increasing women’s representation.” Therein lies the rub: How do you promote the idea of more women in the workplace without talking about women? While the number of women in the workplace has grown globally, Arab culture remains a male-dominated one and women who work are not always treated as equals. The 2003 United Nations Arab Human Development report concludes that “Arabs stand for gender equality in education, but not in employment. Arabs express support for building the human capabilities of women, but not for their utilisation". Additionally, there are still countries in the GCC that do not allow women to vote, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While Hill acknowledges that gender equality is still an issue, she does not believe it is the most important aspect of workplace diversity. “It must not become a ‘them and us’ issue. It shouldn’t be about gender or ethnicity,” she says. “It’s really about how you create a truly inclusive climate in your workplace that actually values all contributions." Hill points out that if women push workplace diversity as just a gender issue, then they are in danger of diluting the power of the real issues — for example, accountability. “What’s really important is that you are accountable for your performance and delivering to your organisation and to your colleagues," she says. “So what’s likely to happen is that if you focus too much on the gender issue, what ends up getting lost is the fact that this lady is fantastic when she is working with others, and so on. “While quotas allow you to focus on a target, they mustn’t become ends to themselves.” Hill adds: “At the end of the day, I want my peers to know I am where I am because of my performance, not because of quotas or the fact that I am a woman. So I think it’s really important that we focus on merit.” While many countries and organisations proclaim diversity is a good and achievable goal, Hill says in some cultures it is more about changing minds and opinions. “I think that changing a mindset is not something that happens overnight. It happens when more and more people are involved in an inclusive culture themselves and that they see the benefits. Then they can be advocates,” she says. “So that takes time itself. You have to have had that experience. You have to be able to share those experiences to build a new mindset.” But she also believes that both corporations and governments have a role in bringing about change. “There’s always a role for governments and companies. For example, [governments control] education, [companies control] flexible working hours. It’s really about harnessing the power of all our population and then looking at sectors to see what we need to put in place to enable that to happen,” Hill says. For its part, Shell is in the process of evaluating its own efforts in promoting diversity in its offices. In 1997, the company launched the Key Performance Indicator programme that requires the company’s senior executive positions to be 20% staffed by women by 2008; to hire locally for the country chairperson slots; and for each unit to report annually its own progress in creating a diverse workplace. While 20% may not sound like enough since half of the world’s population is female, the International Labour Office statistics show only 20-40% of women are in managerial positions across 60 countries worldwide. While Shell has put into place a programme addressing these challenges, Hill says every woman herself has to figure out how to deal with balancing work with home life. “Anybody who says it is easy to both achieve and deliver, and to balance your home and be a mother is not being truthful,” says the mother of five children. “There are times I’ve been crying on the plane because I’ve had to go away again and leave my kids. There’s been times when my husband’s got cross because there’s yet another deadline I have to meet and perhaps I don’t pay as much attention at that time to his needs… So it’s not been easy.” What was easy for the charismatic leader was transitioning into her very public role today. “I loved the switch. You’ve got to rely on your team’s knowledge in this business. I love the actual collegiate atmosphere,” says Hill. “The other thing I found valuable is to go into situations where you are out of your comfort zone,” she continues. “Put yourself in a situation where you are not going to be working from your experience base, where you have to learn how to harness the power of other people, about coaching people. “One of the best things you can do as a leader is to be a good coach, to give people development opportunities and challenge them."||**||

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