DUBAI: From allowing women to drive to working in the armed forces, Saudi Arabia has come a long way in supporting and empowering women. The country has struck many firsts along the way. Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was appointed Ambassador to the US in 2019, making her the first woman in the country’s history to serve as an ambassador. She was also elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee in 2020. Saudi Research and Marketing Group appointed Joumana Rashed Al-Rashed as CEO in 2020, making her the first Saudi Arabian woman to hold the position.
In light of the moves that Saudi women are making, Arab News spoke to Jana Yamani, executive director of MBC Academy, dedicated to training and career opportunities; MBC Talent, the group’s talent agency, and MBC AL AMAL, the group’s corporate social responsibility arm.
Prior to joining MBC in 2020, Yamani was the executive manager of fellowships and traineeships at the Crown Prince’s Misk Foundation. She also worked at consulting firm McKinsey & Company in addition to establishing her own consultancy JY Consulting.
Yamani spent nine years outside the Kingdom attaining a double bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in computation for design and optimization from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in addition to a stint at a tech startup in Silicon Valley.
Having studied in North America, what was your experience returning to the Kingdom?
I spent just over nine years in total outside of the country. The first time I left the Kingdom was for my undergraduate degree at Northeastern University, after which I returned.
Shortly afterward, I traveled again to attend MIT for my master’s degree and also returned. Finally, I worked in Silicon Valley for a period of time.
Every time I returned, I felt an incredible excitement and drive to give back to the country. After all, I was in the US because my home country allowed me the opportunity to explore and get an education from some of the best institutions in the world. In turn, I feel it’s only right to come back and contribute to the development of the Kingdom.
I returned in 2016 after working for one of Silicon Valley’s leading startups. It was around that time that the country was undergoing a transformation under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I remember sitting with my husband a few weeks prior to deciding to go back (to the US) and talking about all the amazing developments, and we both agreed that we wanted to be part of that transformation (in Saudi Arabia).
When I landed in Saudi in 2016, I somehow sensed that my last working stint abroad would be the final one. Saudi Arabia is where I belong and where I need to contribute.
How has the Middle East region and Saudi Arabia changed when it comes to being more inclusive of women in the workplace especially in leadership positions?
Personally, I did not feel anything different from what I felt when I was in the US. But, there is no doubt that Saudi was going through a faster transformation.
Interestingly, when I started my own business in Saudi, I had to do most things on my own. I felt everything was enabled for women to take control and finish these processes on their own.
Additionally, I remember when I joined the Misk Foundation, I was surprised to see a large percentage of females in the workspace (we were more than 60 percent female).
Now, with being able to drive, there is no barrier for any woman with big ambitions; she can achieve whatever she dreams of. With women being given even more opportunities than their male counterparts — because we are trying to achieve the right balance — we are technically in the best time.
What are some of the efforts MBC has taken to empower women within the organization?
Within MBC Academy, I am pleased to say that more than 50 percent of our applicants and trainees are females. Meanwhile, at MBC Talent, female casting is an integral part of the division. We want to ensure that women are represented on a larger scale in all areas of production. Female talent development is a big part of what we do.
As for the group overall, we are part of an organization that hires based on capabilities and qualifications, not on gender, so our entire MBC family comprises some fantastically talented, ambitious, and hardworking women.
What are your thoughts on the portrayal and representation of women in advertising and content? How has that changed over time?
There are hugely talented women out there, and the portrayal and representation of Saudi women is definitely growing and becoming more commonplace.
Within MBC Group, we’re taking more steps towards this as well. This month, we are launching a female-focused mentorship program, which will begin internally with a view to expand and open it to women in media in the Kingdom later on.
We want to be able to support women to thrive in the media ecosystem by providing the right mentorship and workshops that tackle crucial topics specific to them.
What has your experience been with Saudi female talent? Are there more Saudi women now than before and what are some of the challenges they face?
The Saudi female talent we have been working with are extremely enthusiastic, with ambitions to learn as much as they can. They definitely want to expand on their capabilities and potential.
It has been less than three months into the year, and we have already found more Saudi media talent than ever before.
However, one challenge that remains is that we do encounter women who don’t believe that media is a sustainable career path. We need to work on changing that perception. But, that is only a matter of time as the whole development process is swiftly happening.
With the recent developments and initiatives to empower women in Saudi Arabia, how do you see the future playing out?
The future is definitely positive, thanks to the leadership’s vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that includes support for women and the issues affecting them.
Today, Saudi women are an integral part of the country’s growth, prosperity, development, and renaissance — our country is witnessing this at all levels.
As for us, within MBC Group and MBC Academy, we are fully invested in contributing towards this vision.