The recent announcement made by King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia on Friday January 11, 2013 to appoint 30 women to the country’s previously all-male Shura Council has raised eyebrows. This is the latest action in a series of moves from the Saudi government intending to enhance the role of women in society after it granted women the right to vote in municipal elections years ago.

This year, the Saudi Labor Ministry issued a series of new directives: Women no longer need their husband or custodian’s permission to work. Shops that cater exclusively to women, (i.e., lingerie, cosmetic and perfume shops) must only hire women. Factories have been ordered to employ more women, and businesses must now create new jobs, separate spaces and facilities for women workers.

Although reports that Saudi Arabia is building “women-only” industrial zones have raised a question, is offering segregated workplace will help women progress, or tuck them even further out of sight in Saudi’s male-oriented society?

King Abdullah also created a government-funded scholarship program that has sent thousands of Saudi women to foreign universities since 2005. About 145,000 Saudis, including 40,000 women, are studying on the scholarships this year in more than 30 countries. In addition almost 60 percent of the country’s university students are female. Experts state that 78 percent of female university graduates in the country are unemployed. Saudi women reportedly make up only 15 percent of the workforce, most them working in women-only workplaces and only a very few in gender-mixed workplaces. Saudi officials acknowledge that change is coming but slowly especially in such a conservative society.

But even with the many challenges in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi women (according to the employers) are well-informed, dedicated to a high level work effort, and very appreciative of, they determined to use, their advanced degrees to better themselves in the work world and their lives outside the work. Saudi women are increasingly braving opprobrium to seek meaningful work, which is destined to challenge and perhaps ultimately undermine Saudi Arabia’s “different, but equal” façade.

Globally “women, by any measure, are the biggest emerging market and represent a very significant and often under-used pool of talent” said Charles Heeter a global leader in the Deloitte. “The progress toward enabling this talent to take its active and fulfilling place in the economy has been very slow”.

Saudi women need to train themselves and other women to remove the imaginary perception barriers and see themselves as capable of succeeding in any job and any workplace. To accomplish this, women should define their career goals, determine the knowledge, education, and experience necessary, and then go after their career dreams – no matter what the industry or job.

Today, and throughout the month of March, we officially celebrate women all over the world. And today we should celebrate the Saudi women and how they are still struggling to shape the history.

By Kholoud Mousa, partner, Audit, Deloitte Middle East.
Kholoud is the first woman partner in Saudi Arabia, and the first woman to receive a SOCPA license