Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves have helped make it one of the wealthiest countries in the Gulf region. At the same time, the Muslim nation is socially conservative, with rigid cultural attitudes and restrictions on women that include preventing them from driving.
It is a nation with one of the lowest rates of working women in the world.
As of 2013, roughly 680,0000 Saudi women were employed, less than 11 percent of adult women, in contrast to about four million Saudi men at work, or 60 percent, according to government figures.
Maha K. Taibah, adviser to the Saudi minister of labor on human capital development, says that the government hopes to double the number of working women over the next few years. Policies to do so include building day care facilities near job sites and creating jobs for women in sectors like health care, manufacturing and information technology.
“Currently in Saudi Arabia, women perceive staying at home as the default,” Ms. Taibah said. “Our programs at the ministry are eager to change that default to staying at home as an option among other options that may fulfill women’s aspirations.”
The Saudi labor ministry has enlisted Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to help find more jobs for women as part of a broad project to get more Saudis, men and women, to work in a nation that has long relied on a foreign work force in the private sector.
The effort to find jobs for women could have big implications for Saudi society, which is why it is bound to stir controversy among the more traditional elements of the kingdom. If more women join the work force, overall attitudes about them could begin to change, much the same as happened in America decades ago when women went to work in huge numbers. Changes in the labor market pushed changes in norms or beliefs.
It is clear many more Saudi women want to work; about a third of those with bachelor’s degrees report being unable to find a job. Many educated women say they are frustrated that they cannot put newly acquired knowledge and skills to work.
On average, they are better schooled than men, but they have no labor market experience and no idea what you need to do to get a job.
The Kennedy School and the Saudi labor ministry are analyzing data on the Saudi labor market and trying to come up with solutions for matching women to jobs.
The US team is working on how to evaluate a government plan to hire more Saudi women for retail jobs in stores that sell lingerie, perfume and women’s clothing. The challenge is complex.
Some women in Saudi Arabia are reluctant to take the jobs, viewed as foreigners’ work. But the bigger problem is getting to work.
Saudi officials have created a pilot program to offer transportation subsidies for taxis to women taking new jobs at one of Riyadh’s shopping malls. But the cost of expanding that program could be so expensive that government officials might as well create a public transit system. But would they need special, women-only buses? Or would women be relegated to the backs of buses?
Several dozen women last year operated vehicles in public in Riyadh, a move that was celebrated in October with anniversary protests and a social media campaign.