More jobs for Saudi women
Interestingly, if one was to consider anecdotal evidence of women in the workplace, it could be argued that as many as 30 to 40 percent of the employees in shopping malls, at least in Jeddah, are female. Of course, this is the retail sector with relatively low wages. The retail sector hires usually high-school educated Saudi women with some female managers possessing higher-level certificates or some university education.
This bodes well for lower- and middle-class families, but the gender gap between university-educated men and women is a major cause for concern. The excuses employers in the private sector give when they fail to hire female job applicants is that men and women working together will cause unnecessary friction in the workplace. Accommodating women with separate work stations, break rooms and restroom facilities would be cost prohibitive and naturally the same old lament that hiring women in the private sector would draw unwanted scrutiny from certain quarters.
But the government only has to look at the low-paying jobs performed by women in the retail sector to understand that employing women actually works. It’s cost effective, draws a wide customer base (i.e. female shoppers), reduces the reliance on expat work force and contributes significantly to the economy by employing women from middle-class families.
We have witnessed, by the sheer numbers of women employed in the retail sector (overall a 48 percent increase of female workers since 2010) that families accept their daughters and sisters employed in jobs that deal with the public.
Women in the retail workplace serves as a test that women are employable and can contribute to the Saudi economy. Yet relegating women to the retail sector will do little to boost the economy where it counts. The government must pave the way with mandatory programs that require private sector employers — particularly in health care, academia, science and technology — to hire a specific percentage of females to these fields. A program similar to Nitaqat would require employers to set aside a specific number of jobs for qualified female applicants, and would exclude expatriate professionals. A “female Saudization” program would help balance the male/female ratio of workers and close the gender gap.
The government also needs to establish a program that eliminates the financially wasteful practice of forcing women to pay for private drivers. Whether this means improving the public transportation system or allowing women to drive cars is up to the government, although it appears from comments made by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that permitting women to drive may be sooner than we think.
The Ministry of Labor is attempting to create more job opportunities for women. It’s developing partnerships with private employers to increase the number of women at the workplace. There is even a female training program for cell phone maintenance. But all of this sounds voluntary for the employers when a stronger government position is needed to guarantee that women are employed.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view