Diary of a female communicator in a world of 30,000 men

What is it like to be a professional communicator working in the Saudi Construction Sector?

  • What if you’re a woman and Saudi labour law doesn’t allow you to sit or interact with male colleagues?
  • In an all-male environment where can you go to the toilet?
  • What’s it like to be the only female in a 30,000 strong workforce?
  • How can you work with key stakeholders when you’re not allowed to speak to them, shake their hands or appear in any media footage?

To coincide with International Women’s Day this week, I have a special guest post to share with you today featuring Gihan Hyde.

I’ve known Gihan for a number of years and she has quite a story to tell! We’re pictured below at the CIPR Inside Awards back in 2014. During the course of our conversation we covered all of the topics above and I loved hearing her answers..

Here’s our discussion…

Q1) Please can you introduce yourself to my readers

Hi, I’m Gihan Hyde, I started my 20 year career in Marketing and Advertising, then moved to PR, then finally found my true passion in the form of Employee Communication.

I have a global and multi sectorial experience spanning from financial services, to construction, to professional services, to FMCG to government.

I specialise in brining order to chaos and building non-existent Internal communication departments and aligning them to the organisation’s business model.

Q2) So why have you been working in Saudi Arabia?

My husband was offered a three-year posting in Riyadh. When we heard the news we were extremely happy and looking forward to the adventure. It is the second time we have been asked to go there and it felt right.

My honeymoon 12 years ago was in Riyadh – a destination that not everyone would choose as their first choice – but due to my husband’s work obligations he couldn’t take time off and personally I wouldn’t change it for the world.

In my opinion the Saudi nation are one of the most welcoming, friendly and generous nation I say so out of experience as I have lived and worked in six countries to date spanning from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Q3) Tell us about the Riyadh Metro Project and Department for International Trade in Saudi Arabia?

The Riyadh Metro Project (RMP) is the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in the world costing the Saudi Government $22bn. Due to its enormity, 29 of the world’s biggest construction companies were hired to build it including Samsung, Alstom, Atkins, FCC, Bechtel, Bombardier and Siemens. The project has 30,000 male only employees speaking 22 languages and representing 42 nationalities. 60% of the employees are illiterate and site based.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) in Saudi focuses on promoting British trade and investment. Following Brexit vote, the UK government decided to diversify their Saudi presence and focus on new sectors such as food and Beverage and retail as opposed to oil, gas, education and health for example.

Q4) So how did you get involved in the Riyadh Metro project and the Department for Int. Trade?

During our “welcome to Riyadh” party I was introduced to someone who works in the RMP and as we started speaking he mentioned that they were looking for someone to build a non-existent communication department that would be used as a central department for all 29 companies when communicating internally and externally.

I quickly walked him through my career journey and he was impressed but there was one problem… I am a female and females are not allowed to work in the Saudi Construction Sector.

I assured him that I would impress whomever he puts me forward to. After several interviews with the RMP leadership teams I got the role, making me the first female communication specialist to ever work in the Saudi construction sector with a monthly seat on the boardroom.

I also won the CIPR Inside award for “Best Employee Engagement Campaign” making the RMP the first Middle Eastern project to win the award.

As for DIT, they were in search for someone to set up a UK/Saudi Retail sector that would allow UK retailers to easily enter the Saudi market and establish their presence. After being with the RMP for almost two years and having had the opportunity to see first-hand how Board members think and behave, I decided to further develop my business acumen if I am to be taken seriously by my future leaders.

I was fortunate enough to get the role, making me the first female communication specialist to set up a UK economical sector in the Middle East and injecting £100M worth of exports into the UK economy.

I did so by helping several UK retailers to set up in Saudi including among others Virgin Megastores, Dunhill and Wagamama.

Q5) The RMP & DIT must have been a real challenge, walk us through some of them and how you overcame them.

Believe it or not my challenges in the RMP were not the fact that I was the only female among 30,000 male employees, or the fact that 60% of my audience are illiterate and site based…. For me these are easy challenges and I know how to deal with them.

My real challenges were things that we would never think of and take for granted.

For example:

In an all-male environment where can I go to the toilet?

Eventually one had to be built for me but until this happened, I had to ask colleagues to stand outside of the toilet while I use it. How embarrassing it that! The worst was inside the tunnel where toilets are not available.

In an all-male environment which office can I sit in?

Remember…. Even though I got hired, I am still obliged under the Saudi labour law to not sit or interact with male colleagues.

To solve this problem, I was given a small room where my door had to be closed at all time and if colleagues needed to speak to me, they had to knock and leave the door open during their time in my office. Very awkward….. Especially when having a confidential conversation. (I am not known to speak softly or quietly). So walks in a 50C heat were my speciality if I needed to have these conversations.

In an all- male environment how can I wear the Ebaya also known as the Burqa and go down and up the equivalent of 7 storey building to the shaft and enter a tunnel that is on a cold day…. would be 40C?

I overcame this by mastering the art of balance when coming down the stairs (no lifts on sites) and praying…. I also managed to obtain overalls and boots which I wore under the Ebaya.

Despite the fact that my key stakeholders and leaders know me and appreciate/ respect my work I was asked to not speak to them, shake their hands or appear in any media footage during VIP events or visits to the site.

Even though it would be me who organised all media coverages, guest lists, and the overall event, I am still not be seen. This was to be the toughest challenge to overcome and accept. I did so by looking at the bigger picture which is… I am doing this for my fellow colleagues who are proud to be part of the project and for the future females to join the project.

Regarding DIT, the challenges I faced included:

  1. How on earth do I build an economical sector? Where do I start from? Who should I seek advice from? What should my strategy be? Who should be my stakeholders?

I overcame all the above by using my key strength and skills….. Communication/ Conversations!!! I spoke to everyone and anyone. I took on board all the advice I was given and weaved out the good and bad ones and finally I used my business acumen in setting up process, procedures, target market, KPIs, profitability, and goals.

Q6) What would you say are your proudest moments?

  1. Ensuring my successors in both the RMP and DIT are females.
  2. Increasing the employee engagement level in RMP by 35% and its media exposure by 40% in six months without having a team to support me.
  3. Injecting £100 M into the UK economy in nine months from setting up the sector beating the £20M original target set by the government.

Gihan thank you so much for sharing your insights and story with us, it’s a pleasure to feature you on the All Things IC blog.

What do you think of her story? You can find Gihan on Twitter @Gehanam.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 6 March 2019.


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