Diversity & Inclusion

Time for change: Susy Aryani Singgih interview

Lootah Holding’s Group COO and Group general counsel on the importance of gender diversity in the industry and how the pandemic has changed everything from consumer demands, through to how companies need to operate

It is estimated that women make up just 14% of the global construction workforce, with the vast majority of that number concentrated in office and off-site roles. When broken down further, the discrepancy becomes even more apparent, with even fewer women to be found in leadership roles within companies.

When one looks at the Middle East, the picture is even starker, with the number of female decision makers in the regional construction industry able to be counted on one hand, and the percentage of women working in the industry far lower than the global average.

This is due to a combination of cultural, social, and economic factors, but there are signs that things are changing, particularly in the wake of recent announcements by the UAE government. These announcements target the improvement of gender balances in the country’s workforce – with a particular emphasis on women in leadership roles – come as part of its pledge to fulfil one of its Sustainable Development Goals.

Therefore, as part of the initiative, the UAE’s private and public sector has committed to raising the percentage of women in leadership positions to 30% by 2025. Amongst the companies that have signed up to this pledge are some of the region’s biggest real estate developers – Majid Al Futtaim and Dubai Holding, along with other construction-associated firms such as Schneider Electric.

In addition, the government has been actively pushing for young women and girls to take on STEM education courses in university, thereby broadening the graduate hiring pool for the construction and engineering industries.

Given the growing interest and changing attitudes towards gender diversity in the industry, Big Project ME caught up with one of the few female leaders in the UAE construction and real estate sectors, and the recipient of the 2021 Female Executive of the Year Award at the Big Project ME Awards 2021 – Susy Aryani Singgih, the Group COO and Group general counsel for Lootah Holding.

A solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, with extensive international experience, Sinngih has worked in London, Singpore, Indonesia, Japan, and the UAE, in both the public and private sectors. Prior to joining Lootah Holding, she held senior positions with the Government of Dubai, and was also the General Counsel of Dubai Ventures Group (a Dubai Holding company). She has also held senior positions at prominent international banks and worked at international law firms.

As part of her role at Lootah Holding, she has been tasked with driving change across the group’s companies, transforming their cultures and shifting mindsets across the board, and particularly in their construction and real estate businesses.

“I was initially somewhat reluctant with joining a family-owned company, because there was this perception that family businesses can be quite messy and not as structured as corporates. But when I met with the shareholders, I fell in love with their vision (for the company) and wanted to be part of their growth,” Singgih says while reflecting on her journey with Lootah Holding, which began approximately three years ago.

“I was hired to make the company have more of a corporate environment and change the way it used to operate. However, while we are transitioning to a more corporate culture, we still want to maintain this family-like bond, where the employees feel like they’re part of a family, that they’re part of a goal and that they’re instrumental to the organisation.”

Sinngih explains that it is important to her and to the leadership team at Lootah Holding that employees don’t feel like they’re just coming in and punching the clock. By getting them to buy into the company’s culture and values, employees will be more committed and invested, thus bringing in different perspectives and thought processes to the table.

“We have created different strategies, changed the way we operate – and of course, with the pandemic, we all got blindsided and lost our bearings a little, but we’re proud of the fact that we didn’t downsize. Instead, we found ways to keep our workforce intact, found ways to keep operating, and slowly, we found our way and now in 2022, it will be all about growth,” she asserts proudly.

However, the pandemic also offered Lootah Holding’s companies some valuable lessons, with the construction-related segments – Lootah Real Estate Development and Lootah Engineering and Construction – having to adapt and cope with a market that changed almost overnight.

“It was a challenge, because the demand in the market shifted somewhat,” Singgih says. “The pandemic made people realise that they wanted bigger living spaces, that they wanted to a space that afforded them the opportunity to have a proper life with their families, but also with a work area. So, there was a need for a hybrid model.

“You can see that people have shifted from apartments to villas, while people who used to share apartments have shifted into their own spaces. But it’s not only the pandemic, it’s also Dubai as a whole. Over the years, I’ve seen the transition from affordable housing becoming quality affordable housing, which is why Dubai continues to be an attractive place for people to move to – there’s nowhere else you can find such affordable housing, built with such quality,” she points out.

Another major market shift has been for residences that incorporate modern concepts and designs, that have technology and sustainability at their heart, Singgih says.

“The biggest transition I see is that people are more aware of the environment and are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly accommodation. People also want technology to be embedded into the way that they live – we have transitioned so much that the older buildings of Dubai are no longer appealing and there is now a need to make eco-friendly, technologically savvy spaces that allow people to live and work,” she adds.

This is why Lootah Real Estate Development has launched a $19 million new project that is targeted at the needs of the UAE’s young professionals and learners. LOCI, as the project is known, is a five-storey, 114-unit residential development that provides a sustainable living experience, with eco-friendly, cleaner utilities and innovative design, built on an intimate scale.

Singgih says that LOCI is in response to the demand in the market for a product of this nature, pointing out that there is a need to ensure that people of all levels have the right kind of facilities and accommodation, if Dubai is to thrive as a city.

“The key to success for any business is to know what the demand is out there. When you tap into the market, you know what people are looking for, and then you produce it. People have realised that they want space, that they want a self-sustainable building where they have everything they need. The market has shifted so much in terms of its mindset, about what it considers critical and important,” she explains.

“We have to look at the social element as well – it’s not only about making money. The Lootah Brand isn’t about money all the time. We have to think about people – we are part of the people, and for the people. We’re a very traditional and old brand, and we can’t just think about commercial gains – that’s what separates us from larger property developers and construction companies.”

She adds that with Dubai having proved itself during the pandemic – with a strong economy and continuing to be open for business while still keeping residents and visitors safe and secure, there will be an upswing in demand for property within the emirate, especially in the wake of the Expo.

“People talk a lot about oversupply in the market, which is relatively true. But at the same time, there is more demand now, especially with the Expo. People in this region – especially in the GCC – love the idea of having a second home in Dubai. That belief has extended over the years to even include Europeans, for whom the concept of having a second home in Dubai is a very appealing one. Especially with the Golden Visas being introduced. So, I believe that there is a demand for housing here, and as long as there is demand, then real estate and construction companies will continue to thrive.”

However, Singgih is quick to point out that while the opportunities may exist in the market, the sector will need to adapt and chance to take advantage of them. In particular, she highlights the need for collaboration between sectors, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

“I think now, more than ever, you see different sectors collaborating together, which is a positive trait. We have people in technology working with people in real estate to create something unique. I see the collaboration between technology and real estate getting stronger in the coming years, actually. People are willing to invest more in housing with technology, because the pandemic has taught us and prioritised our spending, and people have realised that the home is the most important thing.”

Although Lootah Holding is thriving despite the challenges of the pandemic, Singgih asserts that as Group COO, more needs to be done within the company to bolster its inner structures and set it up to be a leading organisation within the UAE and beyond.

At the top of her priority list is addressing the gender balance disparity within the company itself, and particularly in the construction and real estate segments of the business. When she joined the company, she says she found the Real Estate, Construction and Logistics business units to be heavily male dominated and has formulated a plan to improve this.

“In the real estate and construction sector, it’s difficult for women to be taken seriously and it’s difficult for them to penetrate into the sector, because it’s very male-dominated space, it’s a very rough environment. While we do have women in the construction sector, they’re mainly designers and engineers who are sitting in an office, and that’s sad, because if there were more women in construction, and if they were able to walk onto a site and see other women taking part, I think they would feel more comfortable.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that Singgih wholeheartedly backs the UAE government’s initiatives to promote gender diversity and encourage young female students to choose STEM courses and careers.

“If you look at the new batch of Emirati graduates, especially women, you’ll find that there are more and more women in engineering, biochemistry and so on – subjects that used to be taboo for women. And as our children grow, looking at these women in these industries, it will be more achievable for them, whatever they want to be,” she says, highlighting the cultural barriers that need to be broken, so that women can enter the industry.

“Parents have a role to play in teaching their kids that anything is achievable, while corporates have a role to play by encouraging gender equality – not for the sake of it or to tick a box, but by getting rid of that stigma.”

For her part, she says that ever since she became Group COO, she has made a conscious decision in recruitment to ensure that at least 50% of the CVs chosen are female.

“At the end of the day, I pick the candidates who are the most competent, irrespective of gender. But at sourcing time, I ensure that it’s at least 50% male and 50% female, so as to allow women the opportunity to apply and be considered.”

Furthermore, she states that she has also taken extensive steps to put in place employee welfare and wellbeing protocols, so as to ensure there is a better work-life balance in place for her employees.

Given the demands of the real estate and construction sectors, Singgih acknowledges that it can be difficult for individuals to cope with the stresses, especially at a time when the pandemic has put a strain on everyone’s mental well-being. While the UAE government has taken steps to address the work-life balance, there is still plenty more to do, she asserts.

“Dubai has begun to change, but it took a while to transition to the modern way of working. Asia and Europe have moved away from sitting in front of a screen for 12 to 15 hours a day. Now, I ask my employees to be more effective and to work smarter – time management is crucial, as is prioritising jobs. People still feel insecure about logging off at 5PM, as if it means that they’re not working. I push back against that belief,” she says, adding that she has been able to introduce a policy of mental health awareness for employees across the group.

“We have very good coverage for mental health, so that people can see professionals without stigma. The pandemic has made all of us anxious, so we’ve increased our focus on mental health and wellbeing. We hold regular workshops, where we tell people that it’s okay to not be okay and give them a space to talk about their worries.

“Corporates have to be more human in their approach – they have to understand that people are not machines. You have to invest and care about your people. People like it when they see that their leaders see them as humans, and invest in them – their productivity will increase, as well as their dedication and passion,” she concludes.


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