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Women’s participation in Saudi Arabia’s workforce has expanded rapidly in recent years, driven in part by legal changes that require the hiring of Saudi women in several sectors that had previously been staffed by foreign men.
Female employment has also been given a boost by entrepreneurs like Khalid Alkhudair, 34, who left a lucrative position at professional services firm KPMG to set up Glowork, which specializes in bringing women into the labour market.
Founded in 2011, the company has grown from three to more than 150 employees of its own and has helped more than 33,000 women find jobs, mostly in the retail and services sectors. As a measure of Glowork’s success, in 2013 the Saudi software company SAS Holding invested $16 million in the start-up, in exchange for a 51 per cent share.
Alkhudair, who was educated in Canada and the United Kingdom, said the decision to focus on women’s employment was largely inspired by seeing his sister struggle to find a job. “That was mainly the reason, really, because she’s a smart lady and she graduated [from college] and she couldn’t find a job and it just didn’t make sense,” he told Fanack.
His sister’s experience is not unusual. Although female employment has grown, with 16 per cent of Saudi women in work in 2013, compared to 12.5 per cent 2006, the number of jobs available has not kept pace with the number of women looking for work, according to a 2015 report produced by Harvard University for the Saudi Ministry of Labour.
In 2013, the report noted, female unemployment stood at nearly 35 per cent, with 78.3 per cent of unemployed women holding a bachelor’s degree, compared to 14.9 per cent of unemployed men. As a result, Saudi Arabia is losing talented women to its neighbours, especially Dubai, according to researcher and journalist Najah al-Osaimi.
“The consequences to the Saudi economy are dire, because the billions spent on educating women will be another country’s gain,” al-Osaimi wrote in a blog post for the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. “The current situation of women’s rights is characterized by a status quo, and although there have been some forward-thinking steps in favour of women back in Saudi Arabia, these are insufficient to meet the aspirations of a new generation of women in terms of professional development and equal opportunities found in leadership positions.”
Soon after it was founded, Glowork advised a client to hire women as cashiers in a local supermarket chain. The decision prompted a backlash from conservatives, who called for a boycott of the stores. “It caused a huge controversy here because people were not accepting of the fact that [the positions were] so public,” Alkhudair said. “Initially, it met a lot of opposition, not from the government but from society.”
Only a few years later, people have become used to seeing women working in the public sphere, in part because of a change in the law that has opened up more service and retail positions to Saudi women. In 2011, the government decreed that lingerie stores could only be staffed by women. This was followed by stores selling cosmetics and abayas. Previously, the majority of those jobs had been held by male foreign workers, Alkhudair said.
The situation has also changed in supermarkets, where ‘family sections’ now employ women. The new regulations “spurred a whole change in mindsets and thought”, Alkhudair said, who has since been contracted by the Ministry of Labour to reduce female unemployment and thus lower unemployment benefits, which currently cost the government around $10.6 billion a year.
Apart from working directly with employers to encourage them to hire women, and with women to prepare them for work, Glowork has pushed for additional legislation that will make it easier for women to enter the workforce, such as mandatory maternity leave and onsite nurseries for firms that employ 50 women or more. However, barriers to women’s employment remain, including the continuing ban on women driving.
The ban represents an added expense and inconvenience to Saudi women wanting to work, the Harvard University report noted, since the limited public transportation system means they must either hire a driver or find a male family member to take them to work.
‘The challenge of securing transportation could also contribute to the reluctance of employers to hire women,’ the report noted. ‘Moreover, with more than 70 per cent of Saudi women employed in the private sector receiving the minimum wage [$800], the cost for these employees to secure such transportation may either be prohibitive or represent too great a proportion of their salaries for employment to be worthwhile.’ Women’s rights activists have been jailed for flouting the driving ban, prompting an outcry from human rights groups.
Although Alkhudair acknowledged that barriers exist, he argued that his country has made more progress on women’s rights than it gets credit for. In 2016, Saudi Arabia has appointed the first female chair of the Saudi stock exchange and the first CEO of a commercial bank.
He also pointed to the slow pace of progress in some Western countries, where women’s integration into the workforce lagged far behind their entry into the education system. In the Netherlands, for instance, married women were legally required to have their husbands’ permission to work until 1956.
“In terms of where the country has been and what we’ve done in the past couple of years, I think we’ve far exceeded any other country,” he said. “It’s a much faster progression in social change than any other country in the world … I believe the real barrier is time.”