All over the world, employers go into recruitment searches with a specific gender in mind. Perhaps a CEO wants a female secretary. Perhaps a company wants a female CEO. That’s reality.
There are obvious reasons why this is a bad thing: it can stereotype one gender while limiting opportunities for the other. But this obstacle can be turned into an opportunity, especially in a country such as Saudi Arabia, where gender segregation has traditionally been extreme.
I set up a social enterprise, Glowork, two years ago to help Saudi women find jobs and Saudi employers to hire women. That is not an easy task. Laws state that women and men are not allowed to share the same workspace – women need to be in a separate office, with a separate entrance and a security guard outside. So if you are an SME – the engine of job creation – imagine the disincentive to hire your first female worker.
Fortunately, things are changing. Soon after I launched Glowork, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia introduced a new monthly stipend for jobseekers to encourage men and women to find work. For the first time, we had an accurate picture of Saudi unemployment.
What it showed was remarkable. Of the 1.6 million people who claimed the stipend, 1.2 million were women, and 40% of them had graduate degrees. Here is a large talent pool of highly educated women who are keen to work, but cannot find employers to take them on.
The Ministry of Labour began looking at how it could get more women into work, with the advice of a steering committee. Given deep-rooted cultural barriers, progress must be incremental. While the requirement for gender-segregated workplaces remains, for example, employers now have helpful guidance on setting up offices for women. There is legislation mandating equal pay for equal work.
New quotas for female employment in the retail sector have created around 50,000 jobs in a year. At first, this was met with huge opposition. The first time Glowork helped a supermarket hire female cashiers, they were fired within a week after a social backlash.
Yet, remarkably quickly, public opinion has changed. With the backing of the Ministry of Labour, every supermarket in the Kingdom now has a special “family section” where female cashiers work. It offers hope that the same acceptance can happen in other sectors.
I have found that, in general, Saudi employers have no objection in principle to employing women – they just do not know how to find them. In response to a government directive requiring the hiring of more Saudi women, the owner of a furniture outlet store asked me for advice on bringing women into his company. Glowork searched the database of 1.2 million women’s CVs that the government had gathered. The employer was astonished when we brought him candidates who had studied interior design in Paris.
We have also helped employers to take on Saudi women by working with an IT firm to pioneer a work-from-home solution, getting around the requirement for segregated office space. This has particularly helped SMEs to hire women, and rural or disabled women to find work.
And we are working to connect higher education institutions with businesses, through internships and career fairs. Until now, female students have hardly been encouraged to think about how their choice of studies might link to career opportunities.
These are only the first steps. With time and patience, much more can be achieved. Saudi Arabia can lead the way in the region.
Khalid Alkhudair is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Glowork. He is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.
Image: A female Saudi pharmacist dispenses medicines at the International Medical Center in Jeddah June 4, 2007. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil