Sheikha al-Sudairy helps women prepare for the workplace at the al-Nahda… (Anastasia Taylor-Lind/VII/ANASTASIA…)
When Saudi recruiter Tariq Alkahily interviews female job applicants, one of the first questions they usually ask is: Will I be required to mix with men at work?
In a country where the sexes are strictly segregated in schools, restaurants and other public places, many women are apprehensive about working in offices in close proximity to men.
So Alkahily, founder of OilWell7.com, created a chart that has four classifications, along with a corresponding image, to explain the extent of workplace gender mixing: segregated; semi-segregated, which shows a man and a woman in different boxes denoting separate work quarters; unsegregated conservative, with a man and a woman in the same box but separated by a long distance; and unsegregated relaxed, where men and women toil side by side.
“If a woman wants to enter the job market, she must be able to go and work with men,” says Alkahily, 31. “Those who want a female la-la land — where the customers are female, the suppliers are female, the marketing department is female and everything is female — it won’t happen.” According to a November survey taken by his company, 46 percent of women seeking jobs are looking for the most relaxed environment.
As Saudi women take jobs that were previously not open to them, they’re creating a new workplace dynamic in the country. More Saudis now accept the idea of women working in jobs such as law or real estate. Employers who see the benefits of hiring women are adjusting their workplaces to accommodate them, adding women’s restrooms or creating separate entrances and work spaces.
Women who’ve been raised separately from men outside their immediate family are learning that it’s okay to interact with them on the job.
King Abdullah, who has ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005, has been slowly expanding rights for women despite resistance from some segments of the religious establishment. But since the Arab Spring began two years ago, the king has sped up the changes. He granted women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections — the only such contest the kingdom holds; allowed two women to compete in last year’s London Olympics, a first for Saudi female athletes; and in January appointed the first female members to the Consultative Council, naming 30 women to the 150-member advisory body.
Before 2011, Abdullah opened the first coeducational university and named the first Saudi female deputy minister. The king has also created job opportunities for women in areas other than those they have traditionally held in academia, medicine and health.
Women can now work in lingerie and makeup stores, as supermarket cashiers and as quality managers at factories. Women’s universities have also expanded areas of study available to female students, adding law and architecture, for instance.
Even the world’s largest oil exporter can’t afford to keep women at home forever, says David Butter, Middle East analyst at the foreign policy research group Chatham House in London. Saudi women have always been “a hugely underutilized resource,” Butter says, but the country’s economic dynamic is changing as an increasing proportion of Saudi Arabian oil is being consumed domestically — meaning there will be less for export.
“If you’re going to re-balance the Saudi economy so that it is viable in the long term to not depend on increasing oil revenue year on year, there are certain things that need to be done, and one of those is bringing women into the labor force,” he says.
More women are working than ever before — 647,000 in 2012, up from 505,000 in 2009, according to the country’s Central Department of Statistics and Information. “The number is minuscule, but it is a significant increase,” says Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, an economist and assistant secretary general for negotiations and strategic dialogue at the Gulf Cooperation Council. Just 10 percent of Saudi women over the age of 15 are employed, one of the lowest rates in the world.
Yet women outnumber men in higher education. Some 59,948 women received postsecondary degrees in 2009 compared with 55,842 men, according to the Education Ministry.
“It is a big loss for a country that’s suffering a labor shortage,” Aluwaisheg says. “A lot of opportunities are being lost for Saudi Arabia by not employing more university graduates” while it hires foreign workers to do jobs that women could fill, he adds.
The changes that Abdullah has introduced still leave Saudi Arabia decades behind Western countries in terms of opportunities for women, in part because the country’s religious leaders enforce restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.