A Journey to Understanding Diversity

Afroditi Xydi, Contributor

Afroditi Xydi (MBA ’22) shares her experience working and being a woman in the Middle East.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. June 24, 2018. I walked into my client’s office and the CEO gathered us all for an important announcement: women in the country now had the right to drive. When he asked how many women had driven into the office, two out of the 10 women in the room raised their hands. They were proud of this important milestone but simultaneously frustrated that it had taken so long.

There I was, with my hair down wearing a light gray abaya—a long over-garment worn over clothes by women in the Middle East—, thinking that even though I could not completely relate I had a similar sentiment. I had spent a year working in Saudi Arabia and by that point felt fully integrated, but the journey had not been without its bumps.

I had to apply for my work visa to Saudi Arabia multiple times because as a young unmarried woman, I was not deemed qualified to work. When I arrived at my first client site, I had to climb up multiple flights of stairs every day, because elevators were for single men only; it was not an easy feat in a long black over-garment, heels and a headscarf that kept falling off. I had to go to the neighboring restaurant to use the restroom as the client office did not have a bathroom for females. I had to sit quietly in meetings and avert my gaze because older local men were uncomfortable with my presence.

Over time I learned how to earn credibility: communicating via email rather than in person to minimize face-to-face tension. avoiding handshakes and minimizing eye-contact when meeting in person, and finding a trustworthy sourcean Arab maleto act as my advocate with male locals.

By mid-2018 I had assimilated and was working seamlessly with a team of locals. However, having struggled to get there myself and watching other female colleagues face similar challenges, I collaborated with the firm’s leadership to establish a women and diversity initiative. We provided cultural context for our female colleagues, screened project locations for logistical challenges, such as female bathrooms, and trained managers to prepare our clients for working with women.

By the time I left for my MBA in late 2019 the majority of our female client staff were equitably working in Saudi Arabia without compromising their ability to be successful. 

Having lived and worked in a country where gender is so evidently a constraining element when doing business, I have become more aware of the gender disparities and biases around me. Here, at HBS, I am trying to continue to raise awareness through the diversity and inclusion program of the Women’s Student Association.

Afroditi Xydi (MBA ’22) was born and raised in Greece but her studies and work brought her around the world, eventually settling in the Middle East. She loves diving in all its forms, being freediving her true passion. At HBS, she is in a personal quest to meet every single MBA student.