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Mixing it up: Saudi women in the workplace

Racha M
15 October 2008

I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and lived there until I graduated high school, when, with the exception of my father, my family moved back to our native Beirut.  I have returned only twice since then. The first time we were escaping the July 2006 war in Lebanon. Although it wasn't a pleasant experience, being back in my childhood home was an oddly comforting one. Earlier this year, my second trip after thirteen years' absence was to help organise a training workshop involving sixty or so male participants from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. That trip was not pleasant either, but this time, because of the glimpse it gave me into the scale of the challenge facing women in the Saudi workplace.

I have several Saudi female friends who work or have worked in Riyadh - in advertising, banking, dentistry, the UN, and business development - so I could draw on their experience. I remembered what to expect in terms of getting around Riyadh (with a driver), going to malls (keeping a head scarf handy to cover my hair), and eating out (with my girlfriends, in the families section). These things came back to me readily enough, although I occasionally tried to get into the driver's side of the family car before remembering where I was. I also knew that there would be complete separation between men and women in the workplace, more so in the public sector than in the private sector where there is less scrutiny.

The workshop I was organizing was in partnership with one of the Saudi ministries, so in this case segregation would be strictly enforced. The way this was usually handled was either to have split-level theatres with the women seated in the balcony and the men in the stalls, or to use separate rooms altogether, with the women watching the presentations on a screen. Either way, female attendees could participate in discussions via the microphone system. But on this occasion, I was the only female among the participants. We had anticipated that other women would show up, but in the end, none did.

Moreover, I had come to Riyadh at a rather tumultuous time. Reform was in the air; just recently women had been allowed to stay unaccompanied in hotels for the first time, giving businesswomen that extra freedom to travel for work meetings, conferences and business opportunities (albeit they had to register with the police). On the other hand, the Saudi government had come under studied questioning from the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women for various restrictions placed upon women in the Kingdom.

At the preparatory stage, I had no problems coordinating with our partners in the Saudi ministry via phone and e-mail, and they raised no concerns about the logistics of my attending the workshop. Upon my arrival in Riyadh, however, I had a difficult time getting into the ministry for a scheduled meeting. Women were not allowed in the building, I was informed at the door. After much back and forth over the phone between the security guard at the entrance and one of our partners from within the ministry, I was finally let in. It was an awkward situation initially, but once inside, everyone interacted with me comfortably and I was never made to feel out of place.

The next day, the first of the three-day workshop, was when I first started to feel that my assumptions about working seamlessly alongside my male colleagues had perhaps been premature. Showing up bright and early to help set up, I was curtly directed to the women's entrance of the large banquet hall where the workshop was being held. I looked around the women's section, where I would watch the proceedings alone for the next three days. There was a small snack and coffee table to one side, a round lunch table set with cutlery for one, and a large screen and projector at the front of the room. The men's and women's sections were separated by a lobby that would serve as the dining area for the rest of the participants. I knew this because I peeked through the doors and was sharply reprimanded for doing so by one of the caterers setting up the buffet.

I called my contact at the ministry (because I couldn't cross the few meters to actually talk to him face-to-face) to inquire where I was required to be and whether he needed any help. He asked me to stay put and came over to collect all the materials needed for the workshop. I didn't see him or anyone else involved in the meeting again. I was informed that I should stay on the women's side of the building, with the adjoining doors firmly closed. I asked whether it would be possible to sit at the back of the men's section to be able to better participate in the sessions - I was only one person after all - but after some discussion with various participants I was firmly told that this wouldn't do.

In all fairness, I wasn't supposed to be the sole woman participant, having to face solitary confinement for three days, but that's not really the point. Had there been other female participants, they would have missed out on some of the most important aspects of such a workshop - networking and meeting new people - both impossible to do in such a segregated setting. And so too would their male counterparts. As I had discovered only the day before at the ministry, it seems that on a more day-to-day, informal level, men and women are perfectly able and willing to work together. Yet, in a larger, public venue such as a regional workshop, the collective mindset becomes rigid and inflexible.

People are hasty to label the Saudi people and government as unappreciative of what women have to offer in the workplace. My feeling is that this is not so much an underestimation of their potential, as a skewed residual sense of the need to protect women in keeping with tradition.

Yet, Saudi women are poised to become a powerful force and there is huge potential. Saudi women wield a lot of economic power, whether in investments, real estate, liquid assets or as silent partners in family-run businesses. Female graduates currently outnumber male graduates (at 56.5% last year). But only 5.5% of women of working age are currently employed.  Cabinet decisions on the Kingdom's Five-Year Development Plan in 2005 included policies designed to introduce broader employment opportunities for women. Implementation, however, is hindered by deeply ingrained societal norms. Until this changes, equality in the workplace will be a long time coming.

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