Saudi women on the rise but gender gap remains

Saudi women on the rise but gender gap remains

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The numbers are impressive. The participation rate of Saudi women in the labor force, including those who had a job or were actively looking, increased from 20 percent in late 2018 to 33 percent by the end of 2020, according to the General Authority for Statistics.

This means that the share of Saudi women in the labor market grew by 65 percent in just two years. In doing so, one of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 — to increase the participation rate of women in the workforce to more than 30 percent — was achieved 10 years ahead of time.

This is something to celebrate, especially when we look at all the factors that contributed to making this possible. The many reforms in the Kingdom in recent years — including changes to the guardianship law, labor law and family law, as well as allowing women to drive — made it easier for women to work.

In fact, in 2020 and 2021 Saudi Arabia scored high in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Report. It analyzes the laws and regulations that restrict economic opportunities for women in 190 countries and measures the performance of each nation across eight indicators: Mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pension.

For decades Saudi Arabia had the lowest participation rates of women in the labor force in the world. The employment of females historically had been a major challenge in the Kingdom. Legislative, social, educational and occupational constraints prevented them from fully participating in the labor market. As a result, Saudi women represented an enormous source of untapped potential.

As women of all ages are now joining the labor force in growing numbers, it is important to keep in mind that for many of them it is a new experience and a very different work environment from even five years ago. Attention needs to be given to preparing Saudi women and men to compete with each other, and with expatriates, on equal footing in terms of qualifications, training and career development, as well as their ability to work together and communicate professionally.

An analysis by research group Brookings of the numbers of Saudi women who joined the workforce between end of 2018 and end of 2020 indicated that the largest increase, more than 20 percentage points, was among those between the ages of 40 and 54. Among the youngest and the oldest age groups the increase was between 3 and 5 percentage points, and in other age groups it was at least 10 percentage points.

Middle-skilled women, with a secondary school education, experienced an almost threefold increase in participation — from 9 to 25 percent — followed by women with primary or intermediate education, whose participation rates by almost 10 and 12 percentage points, respectively.

This might not be surprising when we look at the kinds of jobs that have opened up for women. On the one hand it is good that women with these levels of education are entering the labor market and finding jobs, but what about those with higher education?

The unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2020 stood at 12.6 percent for Saudis overall, and almost double that rate, 24 percent, for women. The rate of female unemployment has decreased from 32 percent in 2018, and the employment rate — the share of the available labor force that has a job — among Saudi women steadily increased from 68 to 76 percent during that time.

However, more than two-thirds of unemployed Saudi women hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with only a third of male jobseekers.

One of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 — to increase the participation rate of women in the workforce to more than 30 percent — was achieved 10 years ahead of time.

Maha Akeel

Furthermore, many of the employment opportunities opening up for women are lower-paid jobs and include roles previously filled by workers from Asian and Arab countries. Saudization efforts in the private sector have intensified in recent years, which is commendable, but it seems most of these efforts are focused on the retail sector and low and middle-skilled administrative jobs.

Between the beginning of 2019 and the end of 2020, private sector employment of women grew in most economic activities, with the highest growth recorded in the accommodation and food sector (40 percent), followed by administrative and support services (37 percent), according to the General Authority for Statistics.

The employment of women in labor-intensive sectors such as construction and manufacturing grew by 9 and 14 percent respectively, while in the wholesale and retail trade the figure was only 5 percent, perhaps because it was already saturated and new opportunities are still to be fully implemented.

Recent research by Alnahda Society, a Saudi nonprofit organization dedicated to the empowerment of women, found gender gaps not only in workforce participation but also in career development and compensation, with Saudi women earning just SR57 for every SR100 earned by Saudi men, even after adjusting for differences in education levels and experience. This means that on average, Saudi men earn 43 percent more than women with similar education and experience. Overall, Saudi women have higher levels of education compared with Saudi men, but the men have more work experience.

The gap is widest at the top, according to the report, which found the difference in monthly salaries between men and women increases with higher wages. The researchers found that market and social biases explain much of this gender wage gap in the Kingdom.

It has been noted lately that there is a trend of appointing women, especially in the young-to-middle age groups, to high positions in the public and private sectors. This has raised questions about the criteria and whether it is simply designed to place women in leadership positions.

Failure to recognize and reward the accumulated knowledge and experience of older women is a waste of their talents and contributions, and passing over men and women with long careers will create friction. Putting younger people with limited experience, and especially women, in elevated positions in which expectations are high and there is great pressure to deliver results also risks setting them up for failure.

The latest labor force survey by the General Authority for Statistics, covering the first quarter of 2021, reveals that the unemployment rate among Saudis continues to fall, to 11.7 percent from 12.6 percent during the fourth quarter of last year. This is apparently the result of the decrease in unemployment among women. The unemployment rate among Saudi men increased slightly to 7.2 percent in the first quarter of this year, from 7.1 percent in the previous quarter, while the unemployment rate of Saudi women fell from 24.4 percent to 21.2 percent in the same period.

This is not surprising given that there are more unemployed women than men, and it reflects the success of the drive to employ more females. However, it could also, perhaps, indicate the willingness of women to accept any job opportunity, even at a low salary. And where does this leave unemployed men?

What is needed is a balanced approach to employing men and women that ensures untapped potentials are fully realized, and the experience and skills of all age groups help to improve overall performance levels and the quality of work.

It is necessary to study and measure the effects of the recent changes in the work environment and how they are affecting all segments of society.

  • Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1
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