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How to tap kingdom’s vast pool of potential

Dr Mona AlMunajjed

  • Last Updated: April 01. 2010 11:35PM UAE / April 1. 2010 7:35PM GMT

Saudi Arabia is making the right moves to fully incorporate women into the labour market. But with less than 15 per cent of its national workforce made up of women, the kingdom has an enormous untapped potential.

Changes in legislative, social, educational and occupational constraints will allow women to fully participate in the labour market. Overcoming these constraints will be essential if the kingdom is to create a dynamic market economy.

A pragmatic and constructive framework of reforms will have to be introduced in the national educational system as a step in preparing Saudi women for competitive jobs. The implementation of labour and legal reforms would create a supportive environment, according to a new report by Booz and Co.

Since 1992, Saudi womenís participation rate in the labour force has nearly tripled, from 5.4 to 14.4 per cent. But this is one of the lowest levels in the region.

In the UAE, the national female participation rate is 59 per cent, while in Kuwait it is 42.4 per cent and in Qatar, 36.4 per cent. In Bahrain, the rate is 34.3 per cent, and in Malaysia, 46.1 per cent. In addition, the 26.9 per cent unemployment rate for Saudi women in 2008 was nearly four times higher than that for men.

Although more than 90 per cent of Saudi women actively participating in the workforce hold secondary qualification or university degrees, such qualifications do not guarantee employment. For example, 78.3 per cent of unemployed women are university graduates, and more than 1,000 have doctoral degrees. By contrast, 76 per cent of unemployed men have only a secondary education or less.

In 2007, 93 per cent of all female university graduates specialised in education and humanities, while a shortage of job vacancies in those fields has resulted in Saudis seeking work abroad. More than 300 female graduates have accepted teaching jobs in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

In Saudi Arabia, the public sector is the largest employer of women, who make up about 30 per cent of government employees.

About 95 per cent of working Saudi women are in the public sector, with only 5 per cent employed by the private sector. The majority of those work in a narrow range of jobs such as private business and banking.

However, the number of Saudi women working in the private sector increased by 27 per cent during the past two years, from 40,000 at the beginning of 2006 to 51,000 at the end of 2007. Fuelling this phenomenon is the number of Saudi NGOs contributing in creating economic opportunity for uneducated women through vocational training and loans to small businesses.

Today, the number working in the banking sector has jumped by 280 per cent, from 972 in 2000 to 3,700 in 2008.

In addition, Saudi women are now managing their own business investments and enterprises, with 97 per cent in wholesale and retail trade, finance and business services, and construction. Saudi women also own 12 per cent of the firms in the country and 16 per cent of the large manufacturing companies.

The kingdom has taken many steps to promote women in the labour market. And Saudi Arabia has ratified three UN conventions that promote gender equality.

At the national level, the government has undertaken a number of progressive legislative initiatives.

In academia, the Saudi government announced plans to set up 17 technical colleges for women and more than 300 technical and vocational institutes to provide young men and women with skills, paving the way to a tourism industry fostering womenís employment.

The Saudi labour code grants every citizen the right to work, and it stipulates that firms provide all workers opportunities for training.

A 2004 regulation established womenís sections within the government and training initiatives. In 2006, the labour code was revised to include measures relating to maternity and medical care leave, nurseries, holiday and pension provision.

While the government is making major efforts to improve the status of women in the workforce, a number of social, legislative, educational, and occupational factors continue to hinder them. Since a womanís role in Saudi society has traditionally been that of wife and mother, the move towards greater female participation in the labour force has been met with scepticism, debate and anxiety.

Full implementation of womenís rights at work lags behind existing legislation at international and national levels. Another legal constraint is that women are not permitted to drive, making it difficult for them to commute to work without male drivers.

The lack of good basic education for women is also at the heart of the debate.

The public sector educational system does not provide girls with the skills they need to compete in the labour market.

It relies on rote learning and does not sufficiently promote analysis, skills development, problem solving, communication and creativity. There is also a shortage of education in areas vital to the development of the new knowledge-based economy, such as mathematics, science, technology and computer literacy.

Occupational segregation is strongly evident in the Saudi labour market, with women largely restricted to traditionally female-orientated fields in the public sector. There is a lack of opportunities for women in decision making and management positions, leaving untapped an important source of power for the economy.

Although incorporating women fully into the labour market may not be achieved overnight, it must be achieved if the kingdom is to move to a knowledge-based economy. To this end, the Saudi government needs to ratify, enforce and implement legislation that promotes equal participation in the labour market.

Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a senior adviser with Booz and Coís Ideation Centre in Riyadh

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