Women account for just 15% of Saudi workforce
Kingdom has the lowest level of employment of women in the entire region.
April 4, 2010 9:30 by Ben Flanagan
Less than 15 percent of the Kingdom’s workforce is made up of women, despite programs to encourage the full participation of women in the Saudi labor market, says a recent study.
According to the study, the Kingdom still has an enormous source of untapped potential in its labor force, which heavily relies on expatriates at the moment. It adds that legislative, social, educational and occupational constraints prevent women from fully participating in the Saudi labor market.
The study — titled “Women’s Employment in Saudi Arabia: A Major Challenge” — discusses women’s employment and education in the Kingdom, and provides solutions to obstacles. It also explains how overcoming these constraints is essential if the Kingdom is to create a dynamic market economy.
It has been undertaken by Dr. Mona Al-Munajjed, a senior adviser with the Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s leading think tank in the Middle East.
“Women employment is one of the most important issues not only in Saudi Arabia but in all the Arab world. We decided in Booz & Company which is a leading global management consulting firm that this is a major subject that has to be tackled,” said Al-Munajjed.
The study suggests major sweeping reforms that have to be introduced into the educational system to prepare Saudi women for competitive jobs. While the Saudi government is making major efforts to improve the status of women in terms of employment, a number of social, legislative, educational and occupational factors continue to hinder the full participation of Saudi women in the labor market, thereby preventing the Kingdom from reaching its full economic potential.
“Since women’s role within Saudi society has traditionally been that of wife and mother, the move toward greater female participation in the labor force has been met with skepticism, debate and even hostility,” said Al-Munajjed.
According to the study, since 1992, women’s participation rate in the Saudi national labor force has nearly tripled, from 5.4 percent to 14.4 percent. However, this represents one of the lowest levels of women participation in the labor force in the region: The UAE’s national female participation rate is 59 percent, Kuwait’s is 42.49 percent, Qatar’s is 36.4 percent, Bahrain’s is 34.3 percent and Malaysia’s is 46.1 percent. In addition, the 26.9 percent unemployment rate for Saudi women in the labor force in 2008 was nearly four times higher than that for Saudi men.
“In 2007, 93 percent of all women university graduates specialized in education and humanities, while a shortage of jobs in those fields has resulted in Saudis seeking work abroad. More than 300 Saudi women graduates have already accepted teaching jobs in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain,” said Al-Munajjed.
Uneducated women are even more challenged, especially in rural areas. In 2007, UNESCO estimated that 20.6 percent of Saudi women over the age of 15 were illiterate. With only three percent of women illiterates finding an active role in the labor market, over one million Saudi women find themselves unable to enter the labor market due to lack of education or appropriate skills.
The public sector is the largest employer of Saudi women, and women currently make up around 30 percent of government employees. Around 95 percent of working Saudi women are in the public sector: 85 percent in education — in both teaching and administrative positions, six percent in public health, and four percent in administration. “The results will be sent to all ministries in the Kingdom, all Booz & Company researches goes to governmental institutions,” Al-Munajjed added.
The number of Saudi women working in the banking sector has increased dramatically by 280 percent, from 972 in 2,000 to 3,700 in 2008. The majority of Saudi women working in the private sector are concentrated in urban areas, including 39 percent in Riyadh province, 25 percent in the region of Makkah, 24 percent in the Eastern Province, five percent in Madinah province, and only two percent in Qassim and Asir provinces.
“Saudi Arabia has taken many positive steps aimed at promoting women’s advancement within the labor market,” Al-Munajjed noted.
A 2004 regulation established women’s sections within the government and employment and training initiatives. In 2006, the labor code was revised to include measures relating to maternity and medical care leave, nurseries, vacations and pension provision.
The difficulties for women in the labor market were summed up in the study to several points including the lack of good quality education for women. The public sector educational system does not provide girls with the skills they need to compete in the labor market.
The study concluded that there is a lack of opportunities for women in decision-making and management positions, and that less than one percent of decision-making posts are held by Saudi women. Trade unions are not permitted in Saudi Arabia, so women do not have a mechanism to fight for or protect their rights. The problem is compounded by the lack of a specialized women’s unit at the Ministry of Labor and the dearth of women appointed to positions within the Saudi legal system.
“To this end, the Saudi government needs to ratify, enforce and implement legislation that promotes equal participation in the labor market, implement policies that create employment opportunities for women, and establish institutional mechanisms that promote women’s well being and success in the work force,” Al-Munajjed commented.