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Women's Leadership in Saudi Arabia

December 30, 1899


​While the world in general considers that Saudi Arabia takes a narrow view of women’s place in society, there is increasing global awareness that women’s empowerment is enjoying a strong upsurge as more and more women enter the workplace due to their higher level of education.

We Saudis, like the rest of the world, are living in the twenty-first century and the past 10 years have seen tremendous progress in increasing the number of women not just in the workforce but in senior management positions. More and more, women are part of the decision-making process in the public and private sectors so much so that Forbes Middle East has named nine Saudi women to its 2017 list of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen.

By the end of 2015, more than 350,000 Saudi women were employed in the private sector, and expectations are that reports will show that 450,000 women were employed at the end of 2016. While this is just a fraction of the number of Saudi women that could be in the workforce, these numbers represent significant progress in the direction of forging equality for Saudi women.

There are various intertwined reasons for these increasing numbers, but the primary motivator is the performance of Saudi women in higher education settings as students and instructors. Saudi women’s growing access to universities, both domestically and abroad, is creating a foundation for women to assume future leadership roles. More than 300 colleges of higher education for women exist in Saudi Arabia in addition to national and private universities. Women represent more than 56.6 percent of the total number of Saudi university students, and more than 20 percent of those are enrolled in overseas universities courtesy of the very generous King Abdullah Scholarship Program. With the establishment of a number of new universities in major Saudi cities, the number of Saudi female students will continue to increase.

This is certainly no time for women in Saudi Arabia to rest on their laurels. On the contrary, they must continue to assert their rightful roles in society. Although, in Saudi Arabia, there are social and cultural parameters that restrict the advancement of women to leadership positions, it is increasingly common to find men and women working together in the same office space.

Nothing wrong with homemaker, mother, and wife, of course. Yet, the numbers cannot be ignored. A study conducted by Professor Oyvind L. Martinsen, head of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the BI Norwegian Business School, assessed the personality and characteristics of nearly 3,000 managers. In nearly all areas, the study concluded that women were better leaders than their male counterparts.

Women outperformed men in four of the five categories studied: initiative and clear communication; openness and ability to innovate; sociability and supportiveness; and methodical management and goal setting. Even those forces seeking to impede women’s progress cannot ignore such findings.

Finally, recent developments in the Kingdom indicate that there is now a clear strategy on the part of policymakers to allow women to flourish professionally and to assume greater and more responsible roles in the public sphere. Vision 2030, a roadmap to the future created by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, specifically calls for a vast improvement in the status of women, driven by a new focus on education, openness, and equality. No one is so naïve as to think that the status of women in Saudi Arabia will change overnight, but Vision 2030 is not just a public relations campaign. It truly offers real hope and encouragement for Saudi women. It is a commitment from the government to diversify the economy away from oil, spur new business development, and create jobs that will be available to women as well as men.

As the doors open in Saudi Arabia and the very gradual progress that we are accustomed to takes place, the role of women in leadership must always include the unfettered determination to confront all challenges with an aim of expanding her influence and inspiring others—women, in particular, but men, as well. A leader must never forget the influence they can wield and the positive changes that it can foster.

Haifa Jamal Al-Lail
President of Effat University

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