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Women’s role not progressing enough, says Saudi Shura member

Women occupy 17 percent of jobs in both the private and public sectors in the kingdom

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The role of women in Saudi Arabia is not progressing the way it should be, a Shora Council member said.

“We are moving, but it isn’t as fast as it could be,” said Dr. Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi Shura Council member and a former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund during a panel discussion at the Global Competitiveness Forum.

The session on the role of women in stimulating economic development in the Kingdom, the talk touched on the key challenges and opportunities regarding women and the workplace, such as guardianship, driving, and the job market.

Women occupy 17 percent of jobs in both the private and public sectors in Saudi Arabia. This emphasizes the dire situation of gender diversification in the Saudi job market, a market that has the lowest percentage of women working – per capita – globally.

Obaid noted that the younger generation – a generation that comprises 70 percent of the Kingdom’s population between both genders – is caught in the middle of the debate on the empowerment of women.

“Right now, we have a labor market for men, and a [separate] labor market for women,” she said, adding that women in high-ranking positions are not actively competing with men despite their competence with their vocation.

When it comes to opening businesses in the Kingdom, there is a big difference between men and women, Obaid added, stating that “there is a difference between law and implementation,” which ultimately leads to the isolation of women’s issues from the society as a whole.

Also speaking at the panel was Rafiza Ghazali, Chief Financial Officer at Cagamas Berhad (the Malaysian National Mortgage Corporation), who commended Saudi women for their prowess and intelligence in lieu of their oppression, and Joanna Barsh, author of the book “How Remarkable Women Lead.”

Ghazali raised the point that empowerment needs to start at the top of the job market with both genders being personally invested in its progress, to which Obaid agreed, saying: “It (empowerment) needs to be championed by a man, otherwise it is seen as cheer-leading.”

Barsh took the conversation further regarding the championing of the cause of women’s empowerment and argued that it should be advocated on a personal level by men who hold decision-making positions first, paving the way for women in top positions to act as role models.

“Women at the top pull the rest through the pipeline.

“There is now a migration of women to Dubai,” she added, following up with the consequences of a prolonged debate on the topic of empowerment.

Barsh is referring to the ability of Saudi women to live and work in Dubai under the same laws that govern any citizen of a GCC nation, of which Saudi Arabia differentiates its treatment of women economically, having to depend on different channels than the men do.

Many women have opted to work and live in Dubai where they have the freedom to drive to and from work, and can navigate the bureaucratic channels without the need to rely on a male guardian.

In the conclusion of the dialogue, Obaid was asked if change can be expected within the next 30 years, to which she said: “If we think 30 years from now, the young people will have all left.”

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette.