The Other Wing

Women in the Workforce

Regarding female employment opportunities or participation, the World Bank often likes to invoke the metaphor of an airplane as a nation’s economy, with the two wings—both necessary for optimal flight—as […]

Regarding female employment opportunities or participation, the World Bank often likes to invoke the metaphor of an airplane as a nation’s economy, with the two wings—both necessary for optimal flight—as stand-ins for the two genders in the work force. Saudi Arabia’s high female unemployment figures receive much warranted international attention, and while there remains much work to be done before the Kingdom can truthfully say that it is maximizing its female human capital potential, 2015 has, and will, witness a number of important challenges to the status quo.

The IMF and Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information (CDSI) both pegged the Kingdom’s female unemployment rate at around 35%, much higher than the overall 12% (IMF) unemployment rate for Saudi nationals. According to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, Saudi women accounted for 36% of the public sector workforce and 27% of the private sector, excluding expatriates, in 2013. While these figures remain low, even compared to other GCC economies, the SAMA figures reveal a promising trend: the 27% private sector figure in 2013, or a total of 398,000 women, is a dramatic improvement over the mere 55,000 women in the private sector recorded in 2010. The upward trajectory has seemingly continued through 2014 to 2015, with government initiatives and private companies trying to tackle the issue from multiple angles. Perhaps most famous is the Ministry of Labor’s decision to “feminize“ retail jobs at lingerie and beauty stores—a process that began in 2011 and which has added thousands of jobs for Saudi women—but there has also been significant gains in other sectors as well.

In September of 2014, Saudi Aramco, GE, and Tata Consultancy Services opened the Kingdom’s inaugural all-female business process service center in the capital, which is slated to provide over 3,000 jobs for Saudi women by 2017. The Human Resource Development Fund also supported the center, which is a government entity that was established to spur more private sector participation for Saudi nationals. Over 300 women were hired at the initial opening of the center, with 90 being recruited as recent university graduates. This is an important point because while female university students actually outnumber their male counterparts, fresh graduates face much higher unemployment figures.

In March 2015, the Kingdom announced its plans for an all-female industrial city in Jeddah. At 5 million sqm, this women-only city will be the first in the port city, and joins three other established or planned industrial cities around the country. The industrial city will be developed by the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon). According to Modon, these women-only industrial cities accounted for 5,480 jobs in 2014.
Of course, these are just two examples of recent successful initiatives; however, Saudi women have been making gradual inroads in other sectors, such as in e-commerce, hospitality, and aviation. Still, even with increasing private sector and government support, there remain plenty of obstacles that ensure any changes will continue to be gradual. Upcoming public transportation megaprojects, such as the Riyadh Metro, will help, but the current ban on women driving is undoubtedly a hindrance toward the feasibility and accessibility of women in the workforce. Even so, the driving ban is just a highly visible focal point against a cultural and societal backdrop that, for the most part, will not allow any rapid changes to the roles of men and women and their interactions in society. Meanwhile, against these pressures, the government has seemingly recognized that more female participation in the workforce—even on purely economic terms—is a vital part of solving some of the Kingdom’s most pressing economic issues, such as diversifying the national economy and reducing dependency on foreign human capital.