x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Finding a job is hard work for Saudi women

CVs of new Shura Council members reveal that outside the world of academia, employment that matches the stellar educational qualifications of Saudi women is rare.

A handout image made available by the Saudi Press Agency shows women attending the Shura Council in the capital Riyadh on March 2, 2013.
A handout image made available by the Saudi Press Agency shows women attending the Shura Council in the capital Riyadh on March 2, 2013.

Dr Hanan Al Ahmadi has a formidable CV.

An economics graduate, she also has a master's in business administration and a doctorate in public health, both awarded by American universities. She has served on numerous government health committees, worked at Saudi and British universities and today runs the women's branch of Saudi Arabia's Institute for Public Administration, a government school that trains civil servants.

But among the 30 women appointed in January to Saudi Arabia's previously all-male Shura Council, her credentials barely stand out. Two-thirds of the women are PhDs and are affiliated with one of the Kingdom's universities. Most have studied in the United States, Britain or Canada.

As these accomplished women assume their new posts on the 150-member Council, their academic success reflects the growing opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia, as well the persistent limitations they face in public life.

University enrolment of women tripled between 1996 and 2006 and 58 per cent of university students are women, but available employment has grown at a far slower rate and women comprise only 12 per cent of the labour force.

The exception is the university sector, where opportunities for women have increased dramatically.

"A lot of the women appointed to the Shura Council have high degrees, and the majority were academics, because this is where you find this calibre of people," said Mounira Jamjoom, Saudi-based senior researcher at Booz & Company's Ideation Centre, a think tank.

"You will not find women with 10 to 15 years experience in the private sector."

Slowly, opportunities are opening up. In October last year, for example, women were granted the right to practise law. Nevertheless, the discrepancy between educational accomplishment and career options persists.

"Women in Saudi Arabia were confined to the teaching profession for many years, with only few families allowing their daughters to pursue medicine and nursing degrees," said Amani Hamdan, a professor who studies women's identity and education at Dammam University. "The number of female teachers exceeds the number of available jobs in schools."

"Nowadays women in Saudi Arabia can be interior designers, business graduates and computer engineers. Yet teaching would remain the preferred profession for many Saudi families."

About 63 per cent of women study education or humanities at university, specialities best suited to teaching, Ms Jamjoom said.

In the lack of job opportunities outside academia, the Saudi government is partly a victim of its own success in opening the doors of higher education to.

The first public school for women in Saudi Arabia opened in the 1960s in Riyadh, with a curriculum limited mostly to arts and humanities. In the next decade the number of schools for women increased tenfold, from 15 to 155. Women were first admitted to university in 1979. Meanwhile, enrolment rates soared, and 85 per cent of Saudi girls attended primary school by 1990.

Educational opportunities expanded even more dramatically under King Adbullah, who opened the first mixed-sex campus in 2009 and vastly expanded Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman University for Women with a new campus in May 2011. The education budget nearly tripled during the first decade of the new century, and by 2009 it represented nearly a quarter of government expenditure.

University is now the norm for women who graduate from secondary school. Three-quarters go on to attend college.

The careers of the newly appointed women to the Shura Council indicate the limited job prospects that still face these graduates outside the university campus.

The non-academics include doctors, writers and a former senior UN official. None has made her careers exclusively in the private sector.

One cause is the Saudi tradition of strict sex segregation, which is expensive for employers to maintain. The stigma still attached to women in the workplace has slowed the growth of mixed workforces in hospitals and government offices, as well as universities.

Compounding the problem facing women in search of jobs is the lack of employment for all young people.

The country has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the region, with about a third of eligible workers 24 and under without jobs.

For all its success in bringing women into universities, Saudi Arabia's education curricula must become more relevant to the workforce, something that would aid unemployment across the board, according to Dr Wafa M Taibah, an educational psychologist and Shura Council member.

"Given that there is a mismatch between supply and demand in our labour market, we need to focus our effort on making sure our graduates acquire the right skills that are in demand in the labour market," she said.

Such skills include more technical and professional fields, as well as pre and on-the-job vocational training, said Dr Thuraya Arrayed, another Shura member.

"If we manage to fix education, we have probably a better chance fixing everything else," said Dr Taibah, who will focus her work in the Shura on education.