Saudi Arabia looks to female workforce By Abeer Allam Just over a year ago, shops in
By Abeer Allam
Just over a year ago, shops in modern glittering malls or old dusty souqs in Saudi Arabia were all staffed by men.
Foreign men sold everything from lingerie to cosmetics to Saudi women, while saleswomen, mostly from the Levant, occupied almost all the jobs in the fancy ladies-only floor at the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh.
But today, Saudi Arabia is aggressively promoting its “Saudisation” policy of boosting citizen workforce participation, and trying to cut a jobless rate of 26.9 per cent among women – four times that of men, according to research by Booz and Co. The state is now pushing to replace foreign salesmen with Saudi women in its female apparel stores.
In July, women started replacing salesmen in cosmetics and perfume shops, six months after they replaced male employees in lingerie shops. By the end of the year, women are supposed to fill all positions in stores selling abayas, the traditional black cloak worn by women.
Adel Faqih, the labour minister, hopes to create thousands of jobs in the process. The ultimate success of the initiative remains to be seen but Mr Faqih has said he hopes to open new employment opportunities for women by implementing a royal decree by King Abdullah, issued in June last year, to force employers to appoint women.
The 2006 law barring men from working in women’s apparel and cosmetic stores has never been implemented, as the religious establishment lobbied against it. In the ultraconservative kingdom, clerics oppose having women deal with male customers or being around them, fearing it may lead to behaviour they deem immoral.
Mr Faqih is still harshly criticised by the clerics, some of whom complain that he has ignored their attempts to meet him and give advice.
“Economic realities and necessities will force the society to change its perception of working women, because the situation now is unsustainable,” says a diplomat in Riyadh.
But the challenges facing Saudi women seeking jobs, or who venture to work, are unique. The labour ministry last week ordered a supermarket in Mecca to reinstate its female cashiers after the religious police raided the premises and forced the owner to fire them.
Women are not allowed to drive, and public transport is limited, forcing them to rely on the whims of male relatives. Strict gender segregation rules in the kingdom also mean something as simple as dropping off a resume or having an interview with a male manager is risky or even impossible. Resumes often end up being handed to security guards at the front door and do not even make it to the right person.
Moreover, many small and medium-sized businesses can’t afford to hire women, due to the costs of complying with the labour ministry’s segregation rules. These include having a separate female entrance and bathrooms, thick barriers separating the sexes and a security guard to ensure men do not enter areas designated for women.
Khalid AlKhudair, founder and chief executive of Glowork, a women-only employment website, says he is trying to help bypass the segregation rules by matching jobseekers with employers online.
“Employers are under pressure to hire Saudi women but they can’t find them,” he says. “We have 4,000 vacancies available online. We train women on how to write a good resume and conduct interviews.”
Still, working in the retail industry carries a certain stigma. A recent study by Glowork and Alwane, a coalition of regional business leaders, found that 25 per cent of women surveyed said family pressure and acceptance is what holds them back from working in the retail industry, while 5 per cent cited transportation as an issue.
Mr AlKhudair says his group, which is backed by the labour ministry, tries to convince conservative parents to let their daughters work from home, in jobs such as telephone customer service, and match them with small businesses that cannot afford to have women on their premises due to compliance costs.
“We just have to be creative and get women excited about the jobs,” he says. “It could be convincing a company to change the job title or having women work from home instead of offices. It’s a start.”
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Dr. Turki Faisal Al Rasheed
Saudi Businessman lives in Riyadh. President/Founder of Golden Grass Inc. Author of "Agricultural Development Strategies: the Saudi experience".
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