Dispatches From Riyadh

March 1, 2016

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ACE Leadership Vice President Lynn M. Gangone writes about her journey to Saudi Arabia, where she is participating in the first Women’s Leadership Forum sponsored by Academic Leadership Center, part of the Ministry of Education and housed at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

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Thursday-Friday, February 25-26

I left Dulles International Airport late this evening on a non-stop flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to teach in the first Women’s Leadership Forum for higher education leaders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). While there have been earlier, shorter two-day sessions devoted to women’s leadership, this forum is the first of its kind.

I’m on the plane with my colleague and friend, Dr. Jacqui Elliott from the University of Missouri–St Louis—we met about 12 years ago when she was a doctoral student at The George Washington University (DC). Jacqui’s dissertation was on the history of the Office of Women at ACE (now part of ACE’s Inclusive Excellence Group), so we have many ties as friends and scholars studying women’s organizations and women’s advancement. Jacqui is a U.S. contact for the Academic Leadership Center (ALC) in KSA, coordinated through the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals on behalf of the KSA Ministry of Education, which oversees primary, secondary and higher education.

As I settle into my journey, I begin considering the opportunity and the privilege I have in this role as head of ACE Leadership. For us to be the best in the country, we need to know the world and how higher education leadership manifests itself in other cultures.

In KSA, the higher education system consists of both public and private universities, colleges and community colleges. The institutions segregate male and female students so that each institution (except for single-sex institutions) offers parallel curricula to students in two separate units. Each unit has a vice-rector (one female, one male) who reports to a rector, who is male. In the single-sex institutions, the rectors reflect the student body being served. KSA higher education administration, faculty, and staff are government employees, and faculty do not have a tenure system. The ALC provides training to higher education administrators throughout the KSA.

In her poem “Mindful,” Mary Oliver writes, “Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help to grow wise with such teachings as these—the untrimmable light of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?”

As I awaken after a decent sleep (for an airplane!), I lift the shade and realize I am flying over the Mediterranean Sea, and then the Red Sea. The map in front of me tells me Mt. Sinai is to the east and Egypt is to the west. The cerulean blue water floats below in many gradations, and as I look east I see the wide expanse of desert as the plane turns inland.

This is the time I must begin to recalibrate how I show up in the world, as I have been instructed to follow Saudi custom fully.

As I enter Saudi airspace, I don a black abaya (a full robe covering my body from neck to toe) and a hijab (a traditional head cover). Every time I enter a public space I will be expected to cover myself in this way. This, for me, will be a significant adjustment. However, especially in solidarity with the women I am to teach, my colleague Jacqui and I robe in preparation for landing.

I begin to see pockets of homes and roads and realize that “over there” in the Middle East will soon become “over here” for me. The wheels come down on the plane, and we are on the ground.

I hear my first call to prayer at 5:59 p.m. Friday evening, the holiest of days for the Saudis. There are five calls to prayer per day and the skies are filled with the call. By 7 p.m., I am at dinner and then I fight to stay up to adjust to the time difference and manage my jet lag.

Saturday, February 27

Lynne Gangone (left) and Jacqui Elliott take a break at a local mall in Riyadh.
Lynn Gangone (left) and Jacqui Elliott take a break at a local mall in Riyadh.

Jacqui and I are here, and one colleague, Dr. Peggy Williams, president emerita of Ithaca College (NY) and an ACE Fellows Program “presidential sage,” has arrived from British Columbia. Dr. Jim Antony from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and a former ACE Fellow), and Dr. Lucie Lapovsky, former chair of the ACE Women’s Network Board and 2016 Donna Shavlik Award recipient, are arriving later in the day.

On Sunday, Jacqui, who has been to KSA over 14 times and has developed a wide network of friends among the women faculty and administrators, and I have been invited to spend the day with a Saudi friend. She is a vice dean, and she and Jacqui have known each other for four years. I’ll be glad to get out to actually see where I am.

The three of us—Jacqui, I and our Saudi colleague—head with a driver (women still cannot drive here) to the national museum. There, we learn about the origins of the world and the origins of the Islamic faith. The museum is actually a good way for me to learn more about the country and Islam. It’s beautiful and the architecture impressive.

From the museum we go back to the hotel to pick up Peggy, and the four of us head to a Lebanese restaurant where we are treated to the most amazing meal—Jacqui had warned us that the food here is amazing, and I have yet to be disappointed. As women, we must eat on the family side of the restaurant—unaccompanied women and families eat on one side, and men eat on the other side. Again, this takes some getting used to!

Our Saudi colleague then asks her husband to take us to one of the souqs, a traditional outdoor market. The souq is near the Masmak Fort, which played an important role in the history of Riyadh and the kingdom’s history, as it was as at the Fort where Ibn Saud led the recapture of Riyadh on Jan. 14, 1902.

We strolled the grounds and wove in and out of alleys seeking bargains and a few gifts to bring back with us to the States. Tired, we headed back to the hotel for the evening for a preparation meeting with our ALC colleagues and to sleep.

Sunday, February 28

The Saudi work week is Sunday through Thursday, so today, the Women’s Leadership Forum begins at 8:30 a.m. We are all anxious and eager to meet our 80-plus participants from throughout the Kingdom.

We begin with introductions, and Jim does a great job presenting a framing keynote session on higher education leadership. (Jim actually being in the room with women, presenting, is a break in protocol, allowed by the women so that Jim can fully participate in the day). His talk helps each of us introduce ourselves using his keynote as a foundation for our work.

While each of us has time to talk about our sessions, what is most poignant is the ACE connection each of us shares through the work of ACE Leadership and our Women’s Network.

Peggy and Lucie are Shavlik Award winners. I, along with Peggy and Lucie, came up through the ranks of leadership with the Women’s Network at our backs, and each of us has served as state chairs at times during our careers. ACE, and our deep connections, sponsorships, and mentorships, are foremost in the conversation as we work to illustrate the importance of networks and support to our Saudi colleagues. I’m proud that the American Council on Education has such an important presence at this historic forum. The participants are highly engaged and very quick to ask us a multitude of questions, and the forum begins on a very positive note.

Our workday ends mid-afternoon with a lunch (Saudis eat at much later times than we are used to in the United States), and then we take a break and venture out to a mall for some exercise . . . yes, exercise. Our options are quite limited as women in terms of what we can do, so we make do with what we have!

Monday, February 29

Today we began our sessions—mine are on negotiation, authentic and appreciative leadership, and Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations. I have been careful not to create these sessions with only a Western gaze, but also to consider the women’s cultural perspective in regard to leadership and the various aspects of higher education administration.

300x367-Gangone-Riyahd-3I found the women to be exceptional—very engaged and eager to discuss and consider many options, extremely candid about challenges at work and at home and open to considering different approaches and perspectives. I found myself diverting from the structured agenda to continue to capture more time in conversation and exchange. We shared anecdotes and strategies. And we even had a chance to—literally—let our hair down, because we were in a single-sex environment. I ended up keeping on my head covering and abaya, especially because my hair does not take well to being covered tightly all day! This means a bad hair day for sure!

Many of the women have commented on the respect we’ve shown in wearing the full head covering. Here in the KSA, all women must be in an abaya when in the company of men who are not related to them; however, westerners are not required to wear a head covering. Jacqui has been a good mentor, having been over here so many times, and knows that how we show up matters. Additionally, this has allowed us to build trust quickly.

I am learning more about abayas, hijabs, scarves and how to wear them. The women have teased me a bit because apparently some of my choices are not Saudi, but unbeknownst to me, from Turkey or Kuwait—this is the result of online shopping and little context. There is nothing offensive in this, of course, but just some finer details. So we had a little fun today playing with my head covering and discussing the best ways to wear a head scarf. I, of course, have commented on lots of beautiful abayas—all mostly black with rare exception, but beautiful in their detail and flow. The women have also commented on my looks, in terms of ethnic characteristics we seem to share, and have told me my name in Arabic means tender-hearted, or tender and delicate. Very nice, really!

I will say that I was proud that by the end of the day, several women said that the workshops I conducted had exceeded their expectations. I know all of us on the faculty have put a lot of work into our sessions, and know the importance of the time this week, both for the women currently participating, as well as future participants. So we all have our best to show and share.

I had several one-on-one conversations with women I am getting to know much better, learning about the complexities of their lives and what it’s like to live here. Many of the women have ties to the United States—some born there, many educated with masters’ and doctoral degrees at universities around the country.

We’ve talked about 9/11 and how life has changed since then for everyone. These women want us to see beyond the media images to really get to know them and their lives. I am struck by the deep discomfort many of them have if they’ve been to the States post 9/11—how they feel traveling throughout the country, particularly if they maintain their abaya and head covering, and how sad they are to lose the connection to us. Perhaps programs like this Forum can remedy some of these challenges? I don’t know. I am just working to make connections in whatever ways I can.

Tonight we experienced a rare opportunity. We were hosted, as part of a group of many Saudi women, at the Governor of Riyadh’s home by the First Lady of Riyadh. Princess Nourah is an amazing woman who is very dedicated to the girls and women of Saudi Arabia, and she is particularly dedicated to creating, among other things, micro-financing and entrepreneurial support for women of lesser means.

We met women from all sectors and had great conversations with new friends. I invited a higher education colleague of high rank to visit us at ACE when she is next in Washington, DC, and I am hopeful that connections made tonight will turn into greater opportunities for collaborations.

As with the sessions earlier today, we were among only women, so I particularly enjoyed seeing the wide array of fashion and self-expression that is incredible among these women. There was lots of laughter as well as serious conversation, and may I just say I don’t think I have eaten as well in any other country—the food here has been absolutely wonderful, and the traditional Saudi dishes, particularly, have been very yummy.

It’s late here now . . . our 1 a.m. to DC’s 5 p.m., so I will sign off for now.

tisbaH ala-kheir
Good Night!

Tuesday, March 1

Today I am officially over the hump, as a Tuesday in Saudi is a Wednesday in the States. I am in the midst of my sessions and it’s the middle of the mid-day prayer break. Some women go to the corner to face Mecca and pray. Others leave to go to a separate room. Still others stay and talk on phones or to each other.

Women pray regularly as do the men, but the women’s requirements are less restrictive and there are times (in and amongst the required five prayer times a day) when they can “make up” prayer time. I’ve learned how to tie a head scarf more effectively—my Saudi colleagues appreciate my efforts to wear the scarf and tell me my accent speaking Arabic is quite good as well. These are the small ways that we signal to one another how we work to shrink the cultural divide.

Peggy has been here today as an observer and faculty member in charge of end-of-session reflections. I am grateful for both her presence and wisdom. I am definitely more relaxed as each day unfolds, and the session materials are flowing. I do find these women to be so very smart, engaging, honest and forthright. Peggy and I are struck by the large number of Saudi women from the STEM disciplines, and we wonder if the ways the Saudis deliver education in gender-segregated classes makes a difference in the preponderance of women in STEM.

As women academicians and administrators, we have many similarities. In fact, much of what I am teaching I could easily teach to a US audience of either gender.

However, there are some differences. For example, when I talk about negotiation skills, I take into account cultural differences as the West and Middle East have different perspectives on negotiation. Another example is in the focus of negotiations. For women in the United States, negotiation typically is first focused on salary. In Saudi Arabia, women and men receive the same salaries for the same position, so the issues under negotiation are different. However, Saudi women do engage in and need assistance with negotiation.

My colleagues note some differences in what they include in their session—a discussion on work-life balance also includes time for prayer, a session on resource management may not be as budget-specific because the KSA system is not clear to us but as time goes on, our examples morph accordingly. I’d note that the theory and strategies we and our Saudi colleagues present may be relatively the same; however, the actual application for the Saudi women may differ in their institutions. Also as I work with Lee Bolman and Terry Deal’s organizational frames, I discover that these women consistently rank much higher in the symbolic frame than most Western leaders and managers do; the symbolic frame is one of the least utilized, in fact, according to Bolman and Deal’s studies of frames and their applications. Come over to Saudi Arabia, Lee (Bolman) and Terry (Deal), and let’s see how the political and symbolic frames play out here!

We have an hour of reflection on our three sessions after prayer break and I have individual appointments over lunch and throughout the afternoon. Then I think I will nap at 5 p.m., as my daily rhythm here is skewed by the difference in time and, to some degree, by the limitations of my gender—no walks, no gym, no real outside options as it’s simply too hot to sit in the sun with a black abaya and head scarf—and the pace of my schedule, which is a very early rise and a very late to bed after dinners and catching up on work around midnight. Tonight is another late night a smaller group of women academics Jacqui has grown to know over the years. I wonder how they get up for dawn prayer (required) every day with these hours??  These are resilient women.

Later in the day . . .

We’re off again to dinner, this time at a restaurant serving food from Yemen. Again, no shortage of good food! We are being hosted by our Saudi colleague we met on Saturday, and she continues to be so generous to us. Flowers she presented to me on Saturday continue to grace my room—lilies, roses, and carnations in beautiful pinks and whites cheer up this Holiday Inn living space, and there is never any question that she will take care of us, for which we are grateful.

In the car as we drive to dinner, she tells me she is now following me on Twitter, so I hope she sees these posts and I say “Shukran” (thank you) to my new friend. There are nine of us at dinner and the conversation is far-ranging. A lot of “how do you do this?” and “what do you think about that?” in an attempt to understand culture and tradition.

Of course the focus is particularly on women’s lived experiences as we exchange stories. Sense-making is the theme of the evening for everyone. I find that so much of understanding the lives of the Saudi women requires an understanding of culture and context; sometimes there are no definitive answers. The food again is exceptional, as many traditional dishes from Yemen overwhelm the table. Peggy, who is an ice cream afficianado, takes several helpings of ice cream to make up for the days of previous ice cream deprivation as the deserts replace the main meal.

After much conversation and food we are tired. We exit the restaurant near 11 p.m., and the streets are absolutely packed with cars like it’s a weekend night. We get back to the hotel and finally the abaya is off as I enter my room and lock the door for the evening.

Wednesday, March 2

Oh-so-few hours of sleep as my return to the hotel last evening coincides with work life in full motion back in Washington, DC. My day today begins far too early, yet I am excited to conclude these last formal presentations.

I am now working with my third cohort of women, and in addition to the Academic Leadership Center staff, Dr. Samar Mohamed Al-Saggaf, vice rector of health affairs at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, the largest women’s university in the world, rejoins us to observe and participate in our sessions. Dr. Samar (Saudi practice is to call us by our title and first name, so I am “Dr. Lynn”) is a woman of “firsts” in Saudi Arabia, like our own Molly Corbett Broad, a woman who paves the way for other women. We all appreciate her presence and her stories.

On this fourth day, there are even more sidebar conversations and one-on-one appointments as we have built trust quickly and want to spend time together. Over lunch I spend time with colleagues, one of whom was born educated partially in the United States, and I am able to ask many questions about Saudi life with greater comfort. Another conversation with a Saudi colleague meanders from leadership to neuroscience to philosophy to managing the turbulence of life with grace and ease. Very practical questions—should I leave my post now or wait? In my resignation letter, am I honest about the reasons I am leaving? What are the best areas to focus on in leadership development? How do I apply Bolman and Deal’s frames on my team? Again, on the macro level, a conversation I could be having with a U.S. colleague and on the micro level, differences—in Saudi Arabia higher education employment is employment for life. We talk about glass ceilings and concrete ceilings and the reasons for both. We are the same, and we are different.

Tonight we will have dinner with our Academic Leadership Center colleagues, and we will plan the particulars of our final day together. It’s hard to believe after so much time in anticipation, we are less than 36 hours from departing.

Thursday, March 3 and Friday, March 4

It’s hard to believe, but it’s the last day of the ALC Women’s Leadership Forum. I worked last evening to make sure that I was well prepared for the final day’s conversation—like many of us who value student learning and student outcomes, I wanted to ensure that for the women who participated, our Forum has been a rich and beneficial learning experience. And even beyond this goal of creating a valuable learning experience, I know we are all dedicated to embedding women’s leadership in the Saudi women’s experience.

Therefore, I am also cognizant that our success, that of the faculty of the program, will determine for the ALC directors whether this Forum was a worthwhile investment, and one that is worth repeating and expanding for these women, and others in the KSA. All of us, including Dr. Jim, are absolutely dedicated to the advancement of women. In Saudi Arabia, for me, this dedication to women’s advancement takes on a whole new meaning and purpose.

Ideal circumstances would have had all of us in the same room for the closing, but the larger hall was booked, so each of the faculty are in separate rooms with the cohort of women we each had on Wednesday. Our first exercise is to do a facilitated reflection on the program, using the four questions Dr. Jim initially posed during our Sunday opening session. I just shook my head and smiled as I instructed the women to spend time writing individually, and before I knew it they were talking in small groups . . . this individual/community back and forth was something to watch! No different, I suppose, than many of the women’s groups in the States—the eagerness for conversation and connection across institutions mattered. This reflection time was followed by a conversation about ways to improve the program should there be another at this level and what might an advanced seminar contain look like.

As I walked through the room, the ALC coordinator assigned to my cohort pointed out to me that in the evaluations, role-play had emerged as a desired learning method. As we debriefed what worked, what didn’t, and what we should add, we spoke about role-play and videotaping, which caused quite a conversation. Saudi women’s images cannot be seen by anyone other than other women and men in their families. The control that these women need to maintain over their images being captured on film is critical, especially with those of us who are used to snapping pictures of everything and each other!

This conversation was a pause moment for me, reminding me of the freedoms I have as a Western woman, and the differences between myself and my Saudi sisters. I say this with respect for their religious beliefs and their culture; however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t have such pauses throughout my visit. At these moments, I reflected on the requirement to be fully covered at all times in public and needing. How permission from a male family member is required to travel, to attend university, and to do many other things. Segregation in every aspect of life. Every aspect.

After a morning of reflection and debriefing, our day closed with much celebration—it was time to distribute the certificates! That was so much fun and deeply meaningful; remember, this is the first forum of its kind for these women. As we were in a single-gender environment, there were lots of pictures and hugs, and headscarves and even abayas were abandoned for pictures of me presenting the certificates. We all lingered afterwards until I was pulled away for a final meeting with ALC leadership and several women who are vice-rectors who observed the final day.

Following the program ending, Peggy, Lucie, Jacqui and I took a quick trip (there’s nothing like a quick trip in Riyadh, it’s like saying there’s a quick trip from DC to Virginia, it doesn’t really happen) to a gold souk to see if there were any trinkets to bring home. We arrived back in time for dinner, and then we said goodbye to Peggy, who was flying solo back to Canada. She departed Thursday evening, while the four remaining faculty were scheduled to travel together to JFK very early Friday morning, and then on to our respective airports.

At the airport, we were separated again, as Jim went through the men’s security and women through another security location. As we waited in the airport lounge, we three women abandoned our head scarves, while our abayas remained on until we got on the plane. Since Jacqui and I met Jim on the ground at the Forum, he had never seen us without, at least, the abaya on—that’s something to process.

To say that I have bonded with Jim, Jacqui, Peggy and Lucie in ways I never imagined would be an understatement; an unintended consequence of our time together. For the five of us, this has been an incomparable experience, and I am grateful to these colleagues for our time together.


I am home now after a 14 hour flight and then several hours of flight delays departing JFK airport in New York. I watched three films on the way home, each of which had powerful women as protagonists, including Star Wars and the Hunger Games.

I’ve walked alone, traveled alone, and spoken to men without thinking twice about the interaction. My abaya and head scarves have been through the wash, and I fold them along with my gym clothes that I had left in the laundry before my departure. I put the abaya and head coverings away wondering if, when, and where I will next wear them. I watched competitive swimming on Saturday afternoon while I was at the gym, marveling at seeing Missy Franklin log another win with her exceptional talent. Behind it all there’s a different perspective I now carry after my time in Saudi Arabia.

The layers of this trip to Saudi Arabia are many for me. As ACE’s vice president, I am eager to expand our leadership work internationally. As a woman dedicated to women’s advancement, I am dedicated to go wherever I can to work with women and men who share my commitment to women’s leadership. As an independent and educated woman who has many privileges, I am still processing the layers of my experience, for the contradictions are many. I am reminded of the conversations we had in trying to understand the Saudi women’s role in their country, and a response that was often made—it just depends.

Once human beings can actually connect with one another, the rhetoric and the stereotypes and the dissolution of other-ness occurs. You can’t be one of those people if I come to know you. We all live in an age of such fear, and there are reasons for that fear — I was here in Washington, DC on 9/11. I get it. When I came back to DC after eight years in Colorado, I had to be reminded that I am again living in a vulnerable city, and during my re-entry terrorist attacks have escalated worldwide. Yes, the fear is legitimate. And yet, if we don’t push through the fear to connect with those we label other, we risk losing the very things we as human beings cherish. I am not naïve, but I refuse to give up the world to people who would have us isolated from one another.

I would also add that my (younger) friend Jacqui inspires me greatly. She has traveled to Saudi Arabia over 14 times, beginning in 2009. Her travels are often solo, and at times under challenging circumstances. Yet, her dedication to the work, to her Saudi friends, and particularly to the Saudi women, is exceptional. You will remember that Jacqui’s award-winning dissertation was on the ACE Office of Women. I see her, in Saudi Arabia, carrying the torch of women’s advancement much like Emily Taylor and Donna Shavlik did inside the Office of Women and Cynthia Secor and Adrian Tinsley did through HERS. Saudi Arabia is a place where Jacqui can have real impact, and she has changed lives through her work. I am honored to follow in her footsteps and grateful for her invitation to be part of this first Women’s Leadership Forum.

To whom much is given, much will be required.

I am not prone to quoting religious texts, yet this quote has been on my mind throughout the entire trip. My colleagues and I who encountered this Saudi Arabia trip together have much. The Saudis that we met with also have much. This is our requirement then, to push past other-ness to achieve common ground. And for me, if that common ground is leadership broadly, and women’s leadership specifically, I’m in.

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