Women’s talents crucial to any society’s development

Women’s talents crucial to any society’s development

Women’s talents crucial to any society’s development
Saudi film students, Jeddah, March 7, 2018. (Reuters)
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The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is gender bias, with the focus on raising awareness of the effects of bias on women’s lives and careers. Women and girls face different forms of gender bias from the day they are born. At home, boys might receive favorable treatment and better nourishment and healthcare, while girls often grow up with few choices regarding education, work and marriage. All through their lives, there is either direct or indirect discrimination that affects women’s choices and opportunities, their access to resources and rights, and their ability to be active in their community, to advance and to contribute.

For a long time, Saudi women suffered from this bias, which was unfortunately imposed on them in the name of religion, even though Islam granted women equal rights and prominent positions in society long before the concepts of human rights and gender equality were codified. Today, following the radical changes to policies, laws and social relations that have taken place during the last few years that have reinstituted the just principles of Islam, I can honestly say that this is the best time to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. I expressed this view at last month’s Equality in Energy Conference, which was held on the sidelines of the Egypt Petroleum Show, as energy is perhaps one of the sectors where there is still some gender bias.

The fact that we were speaking about women’s participation in the energy sector tells of how far women have come. Although the number of female employees is not as high as in other sectors, at least there is now the opportunity for women to join and grow. It is not an entirely new sector for women, but there is now more support and acceptance. Nevertheless, certain mentalities and cultures remain a barrier to many women around the world in terms of the fields of study and work that are “suitable” for women.

Aramco has been a pioneer in hiring women since the 1960s and it offers a welcoming environment, but the limited education opportunities for women and the hindering social factors meant few joined the company. However, realizing that there was a shortage of qualified, skilled professionals, while there was also a huge pool of untapped female talent, Aramco launched several initiatives to encourage women to join and advance in the company, including mentorship and leadership programs. Such programs are needed today in every sector, as more young women enter new fields of work and experience new work environments that care more about skills, knowledge and competence.

In the past, not many women studied science, technology, engineering and math subjects because of the limited education and work fields open to them, and there was an entrenched biased view of gender roles. During the past decade, more women have been able to study and work in STEM fields, but the biased view of gender roles persists because, at some stage during their career, women have to choose between family and work, balancing their roles and responsibilities, as well as hitting the so-called glass ceiling. Aramco has been a successful model in providing the support needed, meaning that women are today found in leadership positions in all departments and in the field as engineers.

According to research, the clean energy industry can offer opportunities for women’s economic advancement. The transition to sustainable energy systems, which is a growing sector, especially in terms of solar, provides more job opportunities for women, who are more likely to be receptive to environmental sustainability issues. National studies indicate that the proportion of women in the clean energy sector is higher than in the energy sector overall.

In Saudi Arabia, we see a growing role for women in the energy sector, whether in private or public institutions, including the Ministry of Energy, as well as in scientific research, such as in the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center. Effat University, which was the first university to open a school of engineering for girls, offers a master’s degree in energy engineering with an option to focus on petroleum engineering or renewable energy. The women’s college has also initiated a program focused on solar energy. Furthermore, since 2012, the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Women has offered female Saudi scientists and engineers who have a doctorate an opportunity to conduct research for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

However, for society to fully benefit from women’s talents, certain policies need to be adopted. Among the factors that hinder women in the workplace are policies concerning maternity and paternity leave; a lack of family-friendly policies that allow for a better work-life balance, such as flextime, job sharing, part-time work from home and on-site childcare; and unequal pay policies. Mentoring, training and networking programs and opportunities are also essential. Breaking into the boys’ club is not easy.

During the past decade, more women have been able to study and work in STEM fields, but the biased view of gender roles persists.

Maha Akeel

The debate over quotas continues, whether in terms of gender balance at the workplace overall or in leadership positions. At the energy conference in Egypt, there was more emphasis on quality not quantity, even by women, where competence and qualifications, regardless of gender, was stressed. I think quotas could be useful early on, but even then it is necessary to carefully select people based on specific criteria because a woman should never face accusations of getting a job or a promotion just because of their gender. Often, even when a woman is hired because of her qualifications, there are those who still say it was only because she is a woman. That is why transparency in the hiring and promotion process is very important.

Unfortunately, gender bias, gender stereotypes and gender inequality are a reality in every society. The key is to recognize the problem, address it through policies and programs, evaluate the impact and adjust because, for a society to develop, it needs the talent, insights and energy of both men and women.

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