LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST: Saudi Arabia is still the only country that prohibits women from driving. Getting a job isn’t easy either, and for many women, getting to the office is more important than getting behind the wheel. NPR’s Deborah Amos reports from the Saudi capital Riyadh.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Saudi women are entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. One striking example is here at eTree, a successful online advertising agency. Thirty-year-old Esra Assery founded the company in 2011.
The sign on the door says girls only.
ESRA ASSERY: Yeah. This is very sexist, I know (laughter).
AMOS: The open workspace looks a lot like a college dorm – desk clutter and potted plants, family pictures and a snack table with chips and chocolate. Assery introduces her staff.
ASSERY: This is Tisneed. She is our digital planner. Lanoon – she’s our analyst. Spesama (ph) is a graphic designer.
AMOS: She says she recruits all women because they’re more motivated than Saudi men. In this deeply conservative country, a woman needs permission from a male guardian to travel for education, even for some medical procedures. But when it comes to business, men and women are equal under the law, she says. Her success is based on understanding social media, which is huge here – 8 million Facebook users, 3 million on Twitter and growing fast.
ASSERY: OK. Why Twitter? It’s where people discuss their thoughts. It’s people – where – spend time hanging out. It’s – it gives you an indication of the trends that are happening. Everything that is happening outside is there on Twitter.
AMOS: Her clients want to reach that social media audience. They want to build their brands online. And that’s the business Assery built.
Did you do this because you wanted to make money or you wanted to create jobs or you wanted to prove you could do it?
ASSERY: I wanted to do it because no one else was doing it. There was a huge demand in the market for that, and then, of course, to start and create jobs for locals. It’s 100 percent Saudi, 100 percent run by Saudi females. So it’s part of a commitment – is to create jobs for Saudi females.
AMOS: It’s a commitment the government backs. It’s called Saudization, a policy that aims to replace the huge number of foreign workers here. Private businesses are required to hire Saudis. There’s even a quota. Now, a female hire also counts according to a policy shift by the minister of labor. It’s hailed for as a boost for women. But still, female unemployment is five times higher than men. And that makes eTree unique – the first all-female staff in an Internet startup company. Jihad Al Ammar is an investment manager. He advises a large telecom company on startups. He’s worked with Assery and her eTree staff.
JIHAD AL AMMAR: So, yeah, I mean, they definitely seem to have their own vibe, their own voice. And they’re – you know, they’re excellent.
AMOS: Excellence may be due to another startling statistic. Saudi women are the majority of college graduates, and they hold more advanced degrees than men. But there are still not enough opportunities. Even Internet startups won’t fill the gaps, says Al Ammar.
AL AMMAR: There are definitely more startup companies right now hiring a lot more people than there were five years ago. But it’s still not like a national movement.
AMOS: It doesn’t stop the all-female team at eTree. Esra Assery has built a $15 million business. She’s soon moving to a bigger office. She says she’ll hire more women and add to the three dozen already on staff. She’s installed a massage chair in the office to reduce the work stress.
ASSERY: We take a break every now and then.
AMOS: This is one sign that the workplace is expanding for Saudi women, and here’s another. A newspaper headline this week – some women are forced to share their earnings with their husbands. It’s now part of the national conversation. In this traditional society, men manage all the household expenses, but now Saudi women say a working wife should be able to spend whatever she earns. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.