RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Progress is being made for women in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah announced in 2011 that the world’s largest women’s university would be built in the capital city of Riyadh. He also began the first coeducational university in Saudi Arabia and appointed a female deputy minister for the first time. Universities now offer more majors for female students with the addition of fields such as architecture and law. King Abdullah has 180,000 scholarships available for studying abroad and women are nearly half of the recipients.
Greater access to education and more options in fields to study have prepared Saudi women for better employment prospects. King Abdullah has expanded employment opportunities for Saudi women to meet the demand. Women were initially limited to careers in academia, health and medicine, but can now get jobs in other fields. Jobs are now available to Saudi women at lingerie and makeup stores. Saudi women are being hired to be supermarket cashiers and quality managers at factories.
Women are an important resource that has not been utilized in Saudi Arabia. Opening the workforce to include more women will help modernize the conservative nation and diversify the oil-dependent economy. Expatriates make up much of the private sector in Saudi Arabia. Accessible education may increase the flow of professional Saudi women into the private sector where they can fill up the positions originally occupied by expatriates. Saudi women make up less than 10 percent of the private sector and more than 80 percent of the public sector.
Educated women are crucial to the advancement of Saudi Arabia. Economic and social development rely on the inclusion of more women in the Saudi workforce and the nationalization of jobs. The economy will suffer the longer the majority of women are kept at home in domestic roles. King Abdullah has been in power since 2005 and his policies have gradually empowered women.
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia quickly progressed following the Arab Spring two years ago. January was the first time women became members of the Consultative Council. Now 30 women make up the 150-member advisory body. The 2015 municipal elections will mark the first time Saudi women will have the right to vote and run for office.
Saudi Arabia is at an all-time high for the number of working women. The number went up from 505,000 in 2009 to 647,000 in 2012. While the actual figure is not considerably high, the increase is worth noting. Major opportunities have opened up for Saudi women, but Saudi cultural norms tend to obstruct employment. Societal expectations for women to either be at home or teach have made it difficult for Saudi women to get hired for the high-skilled jobs.
Government segregation laws make it too expensive for small to medium-sized businesses to accommodate female workers. Women are then not hired because businesses must have separate entrances and bathrooms for women and a bodyguard to keep men out of female-only areas. Saudi women find themselves overqualified for the jobs that are available to them. Nepotism poses another problem for Saudi women as they lose high-skilled jobs to those with personal connections to employers.
Despite the progress, Western countries are still decades ahead of Saudi Arabia. Education and improved social conditions will allow women to attain the high-skilled jobs in Saudi Arabia and increase their participation in the workforce. The nation as a whole will benefit. Women prove to be important to the advancement and prosperity of Saudi Arabia.
– Brittany Mannings
Sources: Financial Times, Bloomberg, Huffington Post
Photo: Washington Post