Saudi women – the new workforce

Labor reforms and the gender gap at work

Defying conventional wisdom, Saudi Arabia has for the past decade undergone reforms relating to several aspects of society. Women, even though they still do lack a lot of basic rights were especially concerned by several reforms, introduced during the last few years. Efforts have been made to develop women’s education, in the prospect to make them participate more in the Saudi working force.

How was it before 2002?

Women cannot work in all fields of work. The majority of school teachers are still women. Decades ago, this was one of the only possibilities to work in Saudi Arabia, for expatriates and Saudi women alike, other than working in beauty salons and private shops to which only women can go. The medical domain also included women as nurses, or doctors specializing in ‘sensitive’ fields such as gynecology.

It all starts at school

The education of young Saudi girls was separated from that of boys. But in 2002, the authorities decided to merge the institution taking care of the girls’ education with the Ministry of the Education. Since then, education for girls became fairer and more equitable, even though not yet equivalent to the boys’ education.

Education for girls became fairer and more equitable, even though not yet equivalent to the boys’ education.

Several measures were taken by the authorities. First, education became compulsory for both genders. All children between the ages of 6 and 15 have to go to school. In addition to that, the girls’ school curriculum was reformed the first time in decades and the teachers receive more formation.

Change is happening in universities too: KAUST (King Abdul Aziz University of Science and Technology) is the first mixed university in the country. This obvious advancement might incite other universities or even Saudi schools to do the same, which would be a huge step towards the development of women’s involvement in the working force.

Women at work

Women nowadays represent the majority of university graduates in the country. Despite efforts made to develop and increase women’s higher education in many different fields, the majority of them graduate with degrees of education, Islamic studies, humanities, and science. This does not correspond to the demands on the ground. For example, less than 5% of the female students undergo business studies, despite the fact that there are high demands. This leads to high rates of unemployment, four times higher than that of men. And 75% of unemployed women have college degrees.

Women nowadays represent the majority of university graduates in the country.

However, some laws have been issued since Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz became king in 2005, to make women participate more in the Saudi economy. One law in particular encourages companies to employ women through various incentives. But these companies have to make several adjustments to welcome women in their offices: create female-only offices and facilities and ensure strict segregation between sexes. Many choose not to employ women to avoid all the hassle.

75% of unemployed women have college degrees.

The majority of Saudi women work in the public service: education, health and administrations. There are also banks that are exclusive women: only women can work there and they have only have female clientele. This shows that women have started to gain some financial independence, since they have their own bank accounts.

Female expatriates also find difficulties finding jobs, even with university degrees that could benefit the country. For instance, Nora*, a 23 year old Lebanese with a BS in economics stayed unemployed for a whole year. She says: “Banks are really strict in only hiring Saudi women. But I applied to other companies. The majority replied that they did not engage women at all. Only one of them tried to make an exception. He proposed to build me an office, separated from the rest of the offices with curtains, so that no one could see me. Eventually, they changed their minds because they got orders from above that this was impossible to do.”

Women have started to gain some financial independence, since they have their own bank accounts.

At the same time, others have had or are still having very good job experience. Many of the girls interviewed argue that they enjoy their work environment. Some work separately from men, but others, mostly in international companies, work in mixed rooms. There are always dress codes, with women asked to wear at the least the abaya, and sometimes the headscarf as well, like Hana a 26 year old Saudi, booking coordinator in a clinic. The relations between the genders differ with the company you work with. Some ask the women to stay completely separated from their male coworkers, whereas others are more lenient with both genders working in the same place but with some limitation. For instance, the cafeterias could be divided for the genders.

“Banks are really strict in only hiring Saudi women. But I applied to other companies. The majority replied that they did not engage women at all.”

Taline, 22, currently works in a major hotel: “Ladies have their own offices although they deal with men.” she says. “They also have equal chances to get promoted, but maybe not to top management positions, especially if you’re not Saudi”. Some women admitted that there have been positive changes and progress in terms of work opportunities. Layla, who was a banquet sales executive in another major hotel even declares jokingly: “Oh yes! Women don’t represent a contagious infection anymore!”.

Even within the higher authorities, this evolution is confirmed. There is the example of Sabria S. Jawhar, the official deputy minister for the education of women, who is the first Saudi woman at the cabinet level. In addition to that, after the creation of the syndicate of journalists in 2004, two women were elected in 2005 to the nine members board of journalists. Also, organisations like Jeddah’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as other commercial and medical events have started to mix men and women in the same room.

“Oh yes! Women don’t represent a contagious infection anymore!”

Where to from here?

Despite these developments, a major stumbling block remains, as Saudi women, we have to stay under the guardianship (or mahram in Arabic) of a male authority all our lives. The guardian can be a father, brother, husband, son, uncle or any male from the family. Without the consent and the signature of the guardian, women are not allowed to travel, receive education, apply for a job, undergo surgery, renew her official papers or get married.

The guardianship issue could be seen as a contradiction since women are now freer to work in the country. But this law does not allow them to take advantage of this progress. According to Saudi activist Wajeeha al-Huwayder, even though the situation of women in the working field is better than it used to be, reforms do not touch upon the more profound issues: “There have been what I consider cosmetic steps that touch upon the external [apparent] condition of women”.

The hash tag #SaudiWomenRevolution was started on Twitter, with many women sharing their experiences about everyday life

This is why a group of Saudi women have decided to take matters under their own hands. The hash tag #SaudiWomenRevolution was started on Twitter, with many women sharing their experiences about everyday life, as well as showing their support to the movement of the defense of women’s rights in the country. A Facebook page was also created with the official demands enumerated.

There has undeniably been reforms to include women in the Saudi work force more. But, how can all these reforms really change the situation of women, if they still can’t be independent and have to be all their lives under the guardianship of a man, like little children have to be under the control of their parents?

The names of the women interviewed were changed to preserve their anonymity.

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