Haifa Dia Al-Attia is the CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development (QRF) and the chairwoman of both its flagship program, Edraak, as well as the Queen Rania Teacher Academy. QRF aims to be the leading resource on educational issues in Jordan and the Arab world. It also develops and adapts innovative programs and acts as an incubator for them, all with the aim of changing the face of education with interventions that are impactful, scalable, sustainable and globally relevant.
Edraak is a massive open online course (MOOC) platform, which offers different free courses in Arabic. “Harvard and MIT developed a platform with open source code and we not only adopted it but enabled it to read from right to left, because that’s how Arabic is written, and we introduced Unicode which enables Arabic and other languages”, she said.
“There’s a huge number of online learning platforms for English speakers and learners; but if you can only learn in Arabic, then you do not have access to this learning opportunity and we wanted to make sure Arabs wouldn’t be left behind” Haifa added.
Haifa started out as a teacher and has remained in education for most of her working life. She has been involved in many educational and developmental projects along the years:
“I started out as a teacher in one of Amman’s public schools and I worked with children from refugee camps as well as from the local community. From there, I continued with the ministry and got involved in a lot of the work that influenced public policy on education. I was involved in the setting up of a private not for profit school in Amman, the Amman Baccalaureate School, that was meant to be a catalyst for change, offering diverse offerings and different programs to parents who had different aspirations for their children. We wanted it to set a standard that was high enough for people to want to emulate and we were very successful with this. It was one of the larger projects I took on. Other schools were established in its wake and today they offer a variety of programs for students and parents to choose from; in effect influencing the private and the public schools sector scene in Jordan.” Al-Attia continued.
In addition, she was the Vice President of the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Council of Foundation for years, and she worked with the Aga Khan Academies Unit with a mandate to set up 18 leadership schools in 14 different countries focusing on ethical leadership. She was also the President of the Jordan Osteoporosis Prevention Society.
“In every single one of those positions, I championed an issue that really touches me; With the International Baccalaureate (IB) my focus was on equity in education. I focused on changing the IB from a program for the international ‘mobile’ elite to a program that is accessible to students in public schools. The percentage of students from public schools taking IB programs, the Diploma, Middle Years and Primary Years programs became the majority rather than the minority during my time with the IB”, she added
More recently, Haifa was named in 2015 to a committee put together by the Prime Minister, at the request of His Majesty King Abdullah II, to develop a national strategy for human resources development for the country.
Haifa Dia Al-Attia speaks to ‘Women to Watch’ about challenges, achievements, gender diversity and the things close to her heart…
Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times
What guides me through the good and bad times is ‘doing what is right’ and that applies to both my personal and professional life. There are times when the system and the ecosystem around you are supportive, so instead of walking they allow you to run. In good times, I’m enabled to do good because I’m focused on it and everything around me allows me to succeed.
Otherwise, if it’s a time full of challenges and everything is holding me back, I keep in mind the good times and stay focused on the end result. For example, if my objective is to do good by students, youth, young or older women, I stay focused on the finish line. I also do the same in my personal life: I will do what is right, regardless of whether it is expected or not and indeed whether or not it is appreciated.
I say that because doing the right thing is not always appreciated. I have the courage of my convictions and my values are clear to me. They act as my guiding light. If you do what you know and feel is right, it will somehow have impact and even if you don’t see that impact immediately, you will eventually. You need to feel good about yourself; Being aligned with your values is what is important, especially if you want your life to have meaning.
What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?
I think for a long time the system has not made it easy for women. If you look at a TV series like ‘Mad Men’, you get a glimpse of what women had to go through when they went into the workplace back then; they struggled to succeed or even be seen – and today they continue to struggle – because of the perception of their role in life and consequently the value of their work.
Bring that to modern day Jordan for example, where focusing on your work and on getting ahead will at some point clash with your other responsibilities because the social, economic and legal systems around us do not work to our advantage, and most male partners aren’t taking on their fair share of the responsibilities.
It is overwhelming to have to take care of a relationship / marriage, family and a career at the same time. For me, having a partner in life was important, as it is for most people: to be fulfilled in life, you need more than just your physical, intellectual and social needs to be fulfilled. What about emotional support? You need to be loved and to love, to be appreciated and to appreciate in return, to share your fears and your aspirations, but also have companionship and a bond at that intimate a level. If your partner isn’t contributing at the same level you are, or bringing his strength to that partnership, you’re left carrying the burden yourself. If the same is happening at work and the system holds females back despite their abilities or potential, while allowing men to move up without them, or where promotions and advancing your career is based on other factors than competence and leadership skills, it can become too much to handle. It really is very disheartening and while I still think it is wrong to quit, I do sometimes sort of understand when women just give up. That is truly a lot of responsibility to undertake.
Also, many times women have to take care of their parents as they get older, and while I have to say I know men who step up beautifully to that responsibility, if you look around it’s mainly the women who do it. Hence, the women who really stay focused and want to achieve positions of leadership are faced with a lot more hard work than other people have to ever put in. That’s more than a little unfair. While some of us are ‘wired’ for success and have great time management skills, it does come at a price. Others just find it overwhelming and in the end they give up.
This is sad for society because if you look at some statistics about Jordan, girls outperform the boys at every single level: In school, they graduate with higher grades and they get into universities in bigger numbers. Unfortunately, they then translate into 10% – 14% of the workforce in Jordan and 23% in the Arab world while the world at large aspires to 50%. This is quite dangerous because all our best learners and our highest achievers aren’t coming into the workforce and we are ending up with a labor market that is flooded with mediocrity.
I think there a lot of reasons for this, some are cultural, where parents want their daughters to have qualifications but they are worried about them being in the workforce. Also, men want to marry women who are happier to just take care of the family and of them. It can also be that women don’t feel that going into the work force rewards them especially that we don’t have parity in pay or opportunities for growth and to show our potential.
On a related note, our education system doesn’t allow girls to dream; I don’t think our schools do enough to empower girls to see that they make up half of the society, that they can take up 50% of the workforce and they can be leaders. It’s not only our education system but also social and very importantly our legal structures that don’t encourage women to go beyond just doing well in school. When push comes to shove, the odds are stacked against them.
I think now there is a higher investment in reforming our education system and there is more sensitivity amongst decision makers to apply a gender lens to our policies. I am hopeful that our educational reform project right now is going to lead us to a more equitable system that also allows women to feel empowered to take on a role beyond school and family.
Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?
Helping found the Amman Baccalaureate School meant a lot to me, especially that I was only 22 years old when I embarked on that journey. When I started, I scouted all the services offered by different schools in Jordan and did the research that actually helped set up the school. But what makes me even more proud is that of taking an idea at such a young age and helping to transform it into an institution then staying with it for so long, from 1981 until 2005, going from success to success. That was a big influence in my career; a power trip of sorts. I was also doing something that I love doing, so while I did not teach at the school, I was enabling all these young students to have an offering that wasn’t there before.
The other accomplishment probably is the introduction of the International Baccalaureate (IB) into public schools around the world. Turning the tide to get more public school students into the system worldwide had a profound impact on me. I think of it in terms of equity in education and social justice. Access to schooling is not as difficult as it once was but it is the quality of that education and how school prepares you for life; it is giving access to quality educational programs for children and young people whose socio-economic circumstances would not otherwise enable them to that is amazing. It truly is a wonderful thing.
The third would be the Queen Rania Foundation (QRF) and Edraak. QRF started as a small unit at Her Majesty’s office. I joined in December 2012 and we set out to establish and register it, which we did in 2013. Then by 2014, we brought to life Edraak, this platform that was going to change lives – and it currently has 1.5 million users across the Arab world. This is something that I carry with a lot of pride and the platform, the team and the entire institution are very dear to my heart, to the point that they feel like they are part of my DNA. Again, it was an idea that became an institution. I have been lucky to work for leaders who have vision, huge aspirations and heart.
I knew when I took on this challenge, that this would be the position where I would want to leave the biggest mark, and it has been possible, whether through Edraak or the National Strategy for human resources development that we worked on in 2015 and 2016, or the other projects we are working on still. The things we are doing are the things that allow me to go to bed at night feeling really good about myself and about the future of Jordan. I am also very happy knowing that I’ll leave behind me a huge group of leaders for the future who will take this institution beyond what I’ve done with it and further towards fulfilling Her Majesty’s aspirations for her Foundation. This is such an incredible opportunity. I really love looking at QRF and at my team and seeing the potential it and they will grow into with and beyond me.
The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?
I’m not anxious or fearful by nature; I’m not wired that way. I only worry about something when it becomes a reality. I’m probably just lucky that when I look out, I don’t see worst case scenarios. I see hope and success. I’m wired to see things happen, not what could be lurking behind this door or that. That works best for me.
It’s not that I haven’t had anxious moments and they may be overwhelming for a day or even for a certain period of time. I just refuse to live with that. I’m empowered to feel like I can overcome that fear or anxiety and I’m always happy to step up to a responsibility and try to allay the fears of others. I think I have a happy gene; I wake up every morning thinking this will be a good day. I don’t even realize how young or old I am until I catch myself in the mirror and see that I am not longer 30 years old. I believe this positive energy is infectious – it energizes others and in that way it comes back to me as well.
What do you believe will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?
That’s an easy one! We represent half of humanity and we have a perspective which is different to men regardless of our culture or the systems we’ve grown up in. I’ve had men on my own board of directors who will say “What is it about women that they can lead so differently and can make such an impact so quickly?” So I think when a woman is strong she can bring multitasking and empathy to the workplace. We have different skills and aspirations and we role model differently.
Whether we’re the nurturing type or competitive as human beings we still bring a different kind of energy to anything that we undertake, and we carry with us people in special ways. I’m personally a nurturer, that’s why I’m in education. I look at other people and see how they can grow, how they can operate within a team, how they build a team and how they can become leaders.
We need all kinds of role models; you can’t just have one stereo type of a man who is at the very top of his game and not see women like our queen who speaks for an entire generation and who aspires beyond borders. She’s an inspiration to women everywhere. We’ve always had trailblazers in Jordan; women pilots, women entrepreneurs and CEOs of huge multibillion dollar corporations and foundations. I believe we as women have a lot of positive things to offer and – even if I’m being politically incorrect here – I haven’t seen men do such a wonderful job with development versus let’s say war. I don’t know if women can contribute to reduce conflict but they are not really being given the chance at the moment. So it’s not just leadership in terms of a corporation or a foundation or a school or a business, it’s about the kind of caring for issues that I think we bring to our work.
Tell us what your greatest personal challenge is, and how you’ve achieved success in spite of it.
It’s not a personal challenge, it’s more of a personality trait: I’m a little more empathetic than I should be; I take care of people and things. Sometimes if you care too much, it stops you from just bulldozing through obstacles. Maybe I understand and empathize a lot with people when they don’t deliver. To counter this, I keep telling myself to keep my eyes on the prize, on the deliverables. Yes, I will feel with you if you’re going through a challenging time and I’ll carry you for a while, but in the end you will have to prop yourself up and carry your own weight. In business it’s difficult if you’re too empathetic and I’ve trained myself to continue to be somebody who cares but not pay the price of not delivering because of it.
What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?
Most men feel a little more empathy and aspiration for their daughters than their wives or their sisters and they will support them more. In Jordan, when education was made free and compulsory up to the age of 16, the men allowed their daughters to get into school because there was no financial challenge in it. That shows you that men’s support can be forthcoming when the system enables it and men can indeed be brought into the fold. I think, little by little, if the system around us enables men to give up some of the control over their families and resources then they will play a very positive role in allowing the younger generation – girls and boys alike – to aspire and to reach that aspiration.
It’s a formula; an enabling environment allows parents to become enablers and fathers to think differently about their daughters, indeed their children. We’ve regressed in the past few decades but before that Jordan was incredibly competitive with its human resources. I believe success is contagious, it breeds more progressiveness and it opens up more opportunities; it’s a virtuous cycle that I hope we can ‘reboot’ soon.
If you could know the answer to only one of the following, which one would you choose, and why?
- What happens after death?
- What is the meaning of life?
I would certainly choose ‘What is the meaning of life’. I never worry about the unknown. I want my life to mean something and I think people deserve that chance to make meaning of their own. People will bring different meaning to their lives but whatever it is, it allows us all a journey that is filled with wonder, surprise, love and success. I think there is so much to life that we don’t even take advantage of when we should.
If you were given a choice to go back 10 years with the experience and knowledge or fast forward 10 years and know how it will be, which one would you choose?
I was doing well at all stages of my life and consequently felt on top of the world throughout it. Whether it was the opportunities and experiences I had, the skills I developed, or the love and support with which I was surrounded by parents and siblings who admired, even adored me, my teen years were very fulfilling. Later on, I was pursuing a career that fulfilled me in many ways and in which I excelled. I also found a life partner that made my heart sing, with whom I could share my life and grow our love and future together. Having three kids who, with him, became the center of my universe while advancing in my career until I became the deputy director of a really important office at the Royal Hashemite Court, and which made me the first woman to reach that position and rank at the RHC, or being blessed with parents who lived to an old age and siblings who took pride in everything I did and stood for, I really would never want to go back in time and live through it again or do anything over again. I don’t think that in ten years I’m going to look back and say, “Oh I wish I had done that!” or think about all that I would have done differently.
I’m not saying it was a charmed life, I’m sure if you ask me now to go back and tell you about all the things I’ve lost along the way, I’ll tell you about my parents falling ill and losing them, some of the challenges in my own journey, the friends I lost and the things that were once important to me but are not there anymore. However, I don’t think I see my life that way: I see those milestones that were perfect so that, even with those imperfections and the difficult and dark moments in my life, I look back and think I wouldn’t change a thing. I am not just content but fulfilled.
What advice would you give to young women around the world?
This is advice I’ve given to my daughter: in your personal and professional life you have to know for yourself the criteria by which you evaluate your own success and journey; you need to establish, know and be confident of two lines in your life and live between them. The bottom line is the minimum you can live and thrive on. The other line is how much you can put up with; how much challenge or adversity you can handle. Then, be confident about the things by which you measure yourself. Some measure their success by the amount of money they make, others by the social status at which they arrive, yet others by the impact they have made on other people’s lives. It’s different criteria for different people but you need to know what it is that makes you happy and fulfilled then engage in it and move forward. Those lines can shift, they can be lines drawn in the sand, because as you grow you also change. But at least you need to be confident enough to know what you are able to live with and what you’re not able to live without. Live your life accordingly and you will be happy and live a fulfilling life.