The changing workforce in Saudi Arabia

Last week I left Chicago for a short trip back home to Alabama to see my family.

During a four hour layover in the Atlanta airport awaiting Delta’s mechanics to repair the air conditioner on our twin engine plane (to which I’m eternally grateful – it’s hot as Hades here this time of year), I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with one of our own government employees who has been stationed in Saudi Arabia for the past two years. He was en route to the local Army Base for a month before heading back to Saudi.

The only thing I knew about Saudi and their customs were what I’ve seen on various news reports and in seeing pictures of their customs of women wearing the traditional black abaya’s from head to toe. I found the conversation to be most fascinating. I am always intrigued in learning about other customs and cultures from all over the world.

One thing he mentioned was the changing reform in regard to women and how they are changing the future of this country. They are doing little by little but are making a difference, nonetheless. Many of them are now attending universities (when in the past, had never been allowed to do this) and are becoming educated, therefore in turn, raising children in a completely different culture as they themselves were raised.

Something I did not know was that women are allowed to work and even hold positions of authority as long as it is only women below them. They can now carry ID cards and have access to their own finances (whereas before, only male members of the family would have access to a woman’s savings). They are also running in local elections and there is even talk about allowing women to drive.  At present, men are the only ones able to drive and from what I hear they totally suck at it.

Back in 2008, construction began on Saudi’s first University for Women called The Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University for Girls which was part of King Abdullah’s plan for reform to modernize the country. He is said to have made concerted efforts to increase the number of women in the workplace.

A recent article in Times Magazine said Women in Health Care Hospitals were among the first institutions in Saudi Arabia to create mixed-gender work environments, in part because women have long dominated many health-care specialties like nursing. Saudi patients in good hospitals in urban areas have gotten used to female doctors, and to seeing women in positions of authority. “People used to say, ‘Why is she working? Why does she need money?’ Now they say, ‘It takes a woman to solve a problem,’ ” says Norah Al Malhooq, an administrator at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment has in the past resisted efforts to widen education for women and put them in the workplace, but King Abdullah is pushing social reforms to increase women’s employment in hopes of a complete change within this social structure. I think that is outstanding!

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