AS SAUDI ARABIA is aggressively marching into a liberalized market structure, more job opportunities are being created in the expanding private sector for both Saudi young men and women. It seems that the new economic changes are associated by less rigid employment policies that include a mixed labor environment. For example, the government’s decision forcing business owners to employ women in traditionally male dominated sales jobs in shops and malls across the country is going full steam ahead and is no longer taboo.
However, as far back as the 1990’s, studies by international organizations such as The International Labor Organization and the World Bank have indicated that the Saudi education system in general was deteriorating, and failing to properly prepare young Saudi men and women for the local job market. Now a new shortcoming could be added to the decaying education system: Failing to meet the new labor structure by systematically preparing them for mixed gender surroundings.
It is no secret that gender segregation in education has been the status quo in Saudi Arabia since public education for females was officially introduced in the early 1960’s. Interestingly, the Kingdom is the only Muslim country in the world that still does not have coed schooling in all education levels, from primary school to university.
However, it could become the logically subsequent phase to the current mixed-gender working environment, and this could represent a new social challenge to its mostly conservative society.
Although recent statistics show that women constitute 58 percent of higher education graduates in Saudi Arabia, their educational background still does not guarantee them a job after graduation.
The current education structure limits women’s access to the labor market through restrictions on certain areas of study and access to a wider scope of jobs, such as engineering, media, and architecture. In addition to that, it is costing the country double the budget as it is paying twice for education facilities Kingdomwide.
The only true attempt to break through this closed educational environment was the opening of King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in September 2009.
At first it was met with some resistance from conservatives, but was soon accepted as an experimental model outside the influence of the Ministry of Education, putting the subject of total gender segregation into more of a cultural issue than a religious one.
It is significantly important for every society to have an integrated and dynamic system to preserve its culture, but a major reevaluation especially in higher education system is badly needed to cope with the highly accelerating economic changes, and in order to be ready to compete in the global labor market.
A tweet: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” — Kofi Annan