“Women in Saudi Arabia need to work,” according to an editorial published by Arab News on December 8, 2010, in the wake of a two-day conference on empowering women in the Kingdom. The “Women in Leadership Forum” focused mostly on business issues but also discussed other challenges facing women. “Networking with women who are in different situations, positions and cultures within the same society,” said Jeddah United Sports Company co-founder Lina Almaeena, adding, “Indeed, this conference was about uniting Saudi women.” Among the take-aways from the conference was the idea to create a government ministry to address women’s issues. In an op-ed, reprinted today in SUSRIS, distinguished journalist Samar Fatany, explored the concept of a “Women’s Affairs Ministry,” that would manage the full range of complicated issues affecting women in Saudi Arabia. Provided here for your consideration, alongside today’s reprinting of the report on the conference and the Fatany op-ed, is the Arab News editorial that urges expanded involvement of women in the workplace.
Jobs for women
Arab News Editorial
In Saudi Arabia, it is not the glass ceiling that is the prime issue, it is the “glass floor.”
The two-day Women In Leadership Forum held in Jeddah this week has made is an important contribution to the ongoing process of improving the status of women in Saudi society. This is a country where leaders are held in the highest respect; their views on a wide variety of issues are listened to and commended and their lifestyle and business choices emulated. So when people see — as we do — women taking up leadership positions in banks and businesses, chambers of commerce and municipalities, universities and hospitals, in training, IT and PR companies and even in government and the diplomatic service, it sends a positive message that this is approved at the highest levels and should be spread throughout society. That is indeed happening.
Nonetheless there is a serious problem. It is extremely encouraging that women are bringing their skills into the boardroom. But what does it say about a society where that is acceptable but there are arguments whether they can work in women’s lingerie stores or as cashiers in supermarkets? The fact is that there is strong resistance to women being employed, even in the most mundane of jobs. This is a different issue to the one about workplace gender separation. There is a significant section of society, not just men, totally opposed to women going out to work.
Ministers and officials can talk eloquently and newspapers can write at great length about the need to use all resources of the country to ensure its growth and prosperity, especially its human resources. That is true. But there is a more basic imperative. Women in Saudi Arabia need to work. The cost of living has soared. It is increasingly difficult for families, other than the very well off, to survive on a single income. Despite the belief abroad, only a miniscule minority of Saudis can be classed as super-rich.
In the West, there is considerable debate about the “glass ceiling” faced by women in the work place. Almost all areas of employment are open to them but when it comes to the boardroom, to top management, the doors close. It is slowly changing but these jobs are still largely a male preserve.
In Saudi Arabia, it is not the glass ceiling that is the prime issue, it is the glass floor. At present, women account for just 16 percent of the work force, and the vast majority of them schools teachers. Only when women are employed in far greater numbers in ordinary jobs in administration, in IT, in businesses, banks and a host of other areas, will that glass floor be broken.
It has to go. The government is spending billions to develop women’s potential, such as the new Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, which will be the largest women’s university in the world. What is the point if they are going to be denied the work they seek? Neither they nor Saudi Arabia will benefit from this massive investment.
On Tuesday, in this paper, Saudi journalist Samar Fatany called for a Ministry of Women. Other countries have such ministries. It is time for Saudi Arabia to have one as well. It would be a major tool in empowering women, ending discrimination against them and fostering not just their development but that of the country as a whole.
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- Women’s Employment Initiative – SUSRIS – Jan 27, 2005
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- On A Dagger’s Edge — Saudi Women, Long Silent, Gain a Quiet Voice [Part 4 in a Series] – SUSRIS – Jan 14, 2004
- Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia – SUSRIS – Jun 19, 2003