Crossing the gender gulf

With the help of non-profit agencies and businesses with a social bent, Saudi women are carving a niche for themselves in the labour market

May Binsaeed, 30, is one of a growing number of Saudi Arabian women joining the workforce. After two years of teaching English language to first year students at King Fahd Medical City, she decided to pursue a new challenge with the kingdom’s stock exchange, the Tadawul. Four months into the job, which involves conducting feasibility studies and research, Binsaeed is enjoying her new role as senior analyst of product development.

“I believe if you are qualified enough and good enough you can succeed,” Binsaeed says. “However, I don’t see women becoming directors in the near future. There are still people who don’t want to hire women because they may have a family and responsibilities.”

This mindset prevails among a large percentage of the population in the world’s largest oil exporter, a country that adopts a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam. A web of laws and customs segregate men and women in many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, including most workplaces and educational institutions. This has hobbled the ability of women to pursue jobs alongside men, resulting in an imbalance in the labour force and creating various complications for companies, such as having to create women-only offices.

Today, just 10 percent of Saudi women above the age of 15 are employed, according to the country’s Central Department of Statistics and Information, representing one of the lowest levels in the world. Unemployment among Saudis rose to 12.1 percent in 2012 from 10.5 percent in 2009, according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report released in July. There are 629,044 Saudis out of work, and 363,619 are female, official data shows.

This imbalance has led to the emergence of several companies and non-profit organisations bent on tackling the issue. One of them is Glowork.net, a recruitment website for women, founded in 2011 by 29-year-old Khalid Al-Khudairi, after returning from his studies in Canada.

“As a man coming back from Canada I had an issue finding a job,” says Al-Khudairi, who eventually had to rely on family connections to secure employment. “I started to think; if it’s that difficult for a guy, how must it be for a woman?”

Al-Khudairi created a focus group, which revealed that while many companies had no issue with regards to hiring women, they struggled to find suitable candidates. At the same time, women seeking jobs had difficulty connecting with companies. This presented Al-Khudairi with both a business opportunity, and a way to support the inclusion of women in the workforce.

“We started creating a website for female job seekers,” he says. “Then we went to employers who didn’t want to hire women and convinced them to employ them. We were the first to put women in supermarkets in the kingdom and faced a backlash, but we continue striving to ensure that our goals are met.”

In 2012, the Saudi government enforced new regulations requiring lingerie and cosmetic shops to hire female sales clerks. Al-Khudairi says he was involved in the legislation from planning to execution after his company began working closely with the Ministry of Labour on new laws and regulations. It’s about “changing the mindset and getting organisations to place women”, he explains.

Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has pushed for greater women’s rights in the kingdom, despite fierce opposition from some religious conservatives. Starting in 2015, women will be able to vote and run in municipal elections. In January this year, he appointed the first female members to the Consultative Council, with 30 women joining the 150-member advisory board. Last year’s London Olympics marked an important milestone for Saudi women’s participation in sports when two female athletes were allowed to take part in the games. Women’s jobs have also expanded to include quality managers at factories, a migration from traditionally accepted roles in education, medicine and healthcare.

“For years, the culture played a role in women’s unemployment,” says Al-Khudairi. “Now people are realising there’s no problem in women joining the labour market. Slowly, we see the mentality changing and women taking their place in organisations.”

The number of Saudi women with higher education such as Binsaeed, a holder of a master’s degree in English from the UK, exceeds men by around 4,000, based on Education Ministry statistics. Despite the higher percentage of educated women, however, not all programmes have been designed to meet the changing needs of the Saudi economy.

Many have identified this issue, including the government, which is implementing a plan to diversify its economy away from reliance on hydrocarbons. Continuing to improve the quality of education and reducing barriers to female employment could help support a knowledge-based economy in the kingdom, the IMF said recently. Women with university degrees accounted for more than 70 per cent of female unemployment in 2012, it added.

“Laws are very important but education is the most important because we have a gap between education and employment,” says Al-Khudairi. “Both men and women don’t have any practical experience and expect to find a job on a silver plate.”

This is slowly changing with practical experience becoming mandatory for university students, he notes. Universities have also expanded curriculums available to female students with the addition of law and architecture.

This brightening picture is also supported by non-profits working to help women cross the gender gulf into the labour market. The Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, for example, runs workshops in which young women are taught how to conduct themselves in a job interview, and also hosts recruitment days for employers and jobseekers at its offices. The organisation, which was founded by the late Queen Iffat Al Thunayan, also runs a networking initiative for female professionals and offers career counselling in schools and universities.

While the number of mixed workplaces in Saudi Arabia is increasing, many companies still provide segregated offices for men and women. The kingdom is even developing a women-only industrial city in the Eastern Province, with plans to create 5,000 jobs in the textile, pharmaceutical and food-processing industries. The project, one of several planned, is designed to allow more women to join the workforce and achieve financial independence.

Binsaeed, who has enjoyed the support of her family, is aware that not all Saudi women have the same privilege when it comes to pursuing a career.

“A lot of women would like to open their own businesses and have the ambition to do so, but many don’t get support from their husbands who are not open to the idea,” she says. “Women are being limited.”

Afnan Ababtain, executive manager at the Prince Sultan Fund for Women Development, is working to change that. The non-profit fund offers loans and training to women entrepreneurs hoping to start their own businesses. “There are increasing numbers of Saudi women entrepreneurs, thanks to the support for women and government regulations,” says Ababtain.

The fund dedicates roughly SR300,000 (about $80,000) per project, but would seek to raise additional financing if presented with an “excellent idea”, she says. The organisation funds between six and 10 projects annually.

Through its ‘My Launch’ initiative, women have established more than 50 small businesses, including six that grew into medium-sized companies. These companies then create more job opportunities for Saudi females.

In addition to financing, training programmes, seminars and advisory services, the organisation is also starting a so-called business incubator, scheduled to open next year. The incubator is a building for women entrepreneurs and includes offices, multi-purpose rooms, coffee shops, consultancy and transportation services, facilities and a front desk.

“We are aiming to create the right place to support and adopt women’s ideas and encourage creativity and ambition,” says Ababtain. “We provide women with a healthy environment to develop their businesses for the first two years, which are the most difficult, and to network and receive consultancy services and funding.”

Swiss food and beverage company Nestlé prepares young nationals to work in the private sector and helps “bridge the gap between the academic curriculum and corporate expectations”, says Karine Antoniades, creating shared value manager at Nestlé Middle East.

The company launched the Nestlé Center of Excellence in 2012 to train Saudi graduates in different fields. It also has two female-specific training programmes to encourage more women to work in the private sector and give them the skills required to do so, says Antoniades.

To date, 20 Saudi women have graduated from the programme, six of which were hired by Nestlé for full-term employment. The Business Executive Programme, which equips young Saudi females with skills required in business, graduated 15 women in June, five of which were hired by Nestlé Saudi Arabia.

Such efforts are paying off. The number of working Saudi women has grown from 505,000 in 2009 to 647,000 in 2012, according to official data. But there is still a long way to go, insists Ababtain.

“The funding is there,” she says, “but we need more education and training.”