In western countries, the image of Saudi Arabia is relatively one-sided, even though the country offers plenty of interesting business opportunities. Now the country is facing massive changes, and women are increasingly integrating into the workforce.
In April 2014 Saudi Arabia published its Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to modernize the country’s economy and to increase women’s share of the workforce. The shift is happening, and the most read English-language newspaper in the Arab world Arab News wrote in its article of April 11 2016, entitled Saudi women making strides that be it business or any other field, Saudi women are making progress.
The drop of oil price has forced the country to see the benefits of women entering the workforce and thus benefiting the national economy. This fact is changing attitudes and encouraging to explore the female potential in a country where segregation by gender is the norm. And there is a huge potential, since a whopping 60 % of all higher degree students are female.
In 2013, women were appointed to the Shura Council, the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, for the first time. At that time, 30 women were appointed out of a total of 150 members altogether. That means that the share of women is 20 %, which is more than the share of women in many parliaments around the world. In the municipal elections held in December 2015, women were allowed to vote for the first time and some women were also elected to the municipal councils. A sign of change was also seen in April 2016, when two women were invited to the official delegation of King Salman’s state visit to Egypt.
Despite all of these steps, it is still quite a challenge for women to integrate fully into the working life. Gender segregation is expected in the public. Another big issue is the fact that women are not allowed to drive. On the managerial and expert levels this is not a problem, since women have their own chauffeurs, but for others this may be quite a complication. However, contrary to popular belief, women are allowed to move outside their homes and attend meetings, for instance.
General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, is a good example on how to promote women’s integration into the working life in Saudi Arabia. 15 % of GE’s employees are women, and the company has been committed to hiring women. They can now be found in various positions ranging from engineers to the staff in the all-female service center. This is an excellent example of concrete action that can be taken to promote gender equality, and may be more efficient than statements from foreign directions.
Saudis are interested in Finnish know-how on promoting women leadership
Deputy CEO Leena Linnainmaa and Director Anne Horttanainen of Finland Chamber of Commerce visited Saudi Arabia in April 2016. They met local business women and spoke about the award-winning Women Leaders Program of Finland Chamber of Commerce. The meetings, arranged through the Embassy of Finland, were a clear proof that promoting women business leaders is a topical issue in Saudi Arabia. Many were interested in the Women Leaders Program, and Arab News was among the publications to write about Mrs. Linnainmaa’s and Horttanainen’s visit.
For many interlocutors, it was a surprise that still some 10 to 15 years ago women were very scarce in top executive positions and that even today women don’t figure among CEOs of largest companies in Finland. Through self-regulation, however, women now figure among boards of listed companies and younger women are increasingly entering executive teams.
“It was clear that the shift in gender balance among Finnish business leaders was very inspiring for the women we met. The next step could be that Saudi businesswomen visit Finland and become acquainted with Finnish women leaders and our business culture in general”, says Mrs. Linnainmaa.
The very conservative image many have of Saudi Arabia has led to countries appointing only male ambassadors. Finland is the only country from the over 130 countries that have diplomatic representation in Saudi Arabia to have a woman in the second-highest position based in Riyadh. Ms. Johanna Jokinen-Gavidia has been working for three years now in Riyadh.
“Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country and workplace for Finnish diplomats. As a woman, it has been very easy to collaborate with local officials. The business scene has been equally accessible”, she explains.
Finland has a strong brand in gender equality
Finland is well-known for its gender equality. The publicity women get in Saudi Arabia is many times bigger than what would be received by male head of states. Last time this was seen when Finland’s Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Ms. Lenita Toivakka visited Saudi Arabia.
The biggest privilege for women diplomats is the ability to freely meet Saudi businesswomen. There are a lot of businesses established and run by women, and executive training is in high demand.
For instance in Riyadh and Jeddah there are women consultants that advise businesses on how to seek growth in women-related sectors. Local experts should be listened to carefully when doing business in Saudi Arabia.
A general misconception is that businesswomen can’t travel to the country or that they should cover their faces. The dress code is clear – women should wear a loose, tunika-like abaya and a scarf wrapped around either their neck or their head. So it is not required to cover the face or even the hair. Business women can travel to Saudi Arabia as they would to any other country. It is wise to review the travel plan together with the local business partners, but the rest is up to an open attitude and respect towards different cultures. Both men and women can succeed in their business ventures.
Hopefully Finnish businesses – run by men or women – will increasingly find new business connections in Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi women are wealthy and can be potential investors. The largest economy in the Middle East offers new opportunities for open-minded businesspeople.