Women in the western workplace sometimes complain of the glass ceiling. In Saudi Arabia it is often a glass wall that separates them from the men, writes Sean Cronin.
Jobs for women in the kingdom now a growing concern
Women in the western workplace sometimes complain of the glass ceiling. In Saudi Arabia it is often a glass wall that separates them from the men.
So it should not have been surprising that the most interesting question to be posed to the kingdom's labour minister at an international gathering of global business leaders in Riyadh last week came from behind such a glass wall.
It dissected the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh, where to the left of the stage mostly women sat, while to the right it was mainly men.
The labour minister had just delivered a speech peppered with a dizzying array of initiatives and programmes aimed at creating six million jobs over the next two decades.
It was impressively detailed in almost every respect save one - the elephant in the room was the question of what the government planned to do to create jobs for women in the kingdom. This was exactly the question posed by the woman on the other side of the glass wall.
The minister pointed to a recent decree banning men working in lingerie shops in answer to the question what was being done to create jobs for women in Saudi Arabia.
"Restricting work to Saudi women in shops specialising in selling products such as lingerie and cosmetics is the first step of a long list of additional restrictions and additional opportunities, if you like," said Adel Fakieh, the labour minister. "We continue to believe the retail opportunity offers tremendous additional potential for employing women."
At the Etam lingerie store across the road from where the minister gave his speech there was still no sign of female shop assistants last week, although that was about to change, said Ali Khan, the lingerie brand manager, who confirmed there were Saudi women in training and ready to start work for the company "within three weeks".
As Saudi Arabia pumps billions of dollars into job creation, it continues to wrestle with itself in balancing cultural conservatism with the demands of the modern workplace. While women remain excluded from many offices and factories, the government has recently stepped up the pace of reform despite opposition from clerics.
"We have a series of additional interventions, which will be announced shortly, in which we will be contributing to subsidising wages and the costs of employing women in the private sector," said Mr Fakieh. The government is also planning to open a database of 400,000 CVs of women to employers within the next six weeks and expects to have 50 job centres opened by the end of the year.
The trend is being reflected among private-sector employers. Aramex, the region's biggest courier company, has set up a call centre in Jeddah staffed entirely by women. "We're working very hard on Saudisation," said Fadi Ghandour, the Aramex chief executive. "We have hired 30 ladies for the call centre in Jeddah and we are hoping to build it up to 70 people."
Gulf states will need to hire more women if they are to meet their localisation targets, Booz & Company said in a recent report. Its research shows a wide range in the density of female employment in the region, from about 17 per cent in Saudi Arabia to about 35 per cent in Qatar.
Efforts to improve competitiveness in Gulf states amid a worsening global economy is driving the employment of women up the policy agenda.
"No country can prosper if it leaves out half the population, and we need to invest in women," Lorraine Hariton, the US state department special representative told the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh last week.