Gender quotas a solution to feminising senior roles in Saudi government

While the power and influence of Saudi conservatives is waning, it has not vanished, neither have the social and cultural barriers they imposed for decades.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Saudi entrepreneurs Asmaa Alabdallah (L), founder of BitGo, and Reem Dad (R), co-founder of Taibah VR, stand in front of Halcyon House in Washington, August last year. (AFP)
Saudi entrepreneurs Asmaa Alabdallah (L), founder of BitGo, and Reem Dad (R), co-founder of Taibah VR, stand in front of Halcyon House in Washington, August last year. (AFP)

The empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia appears to be a classic case of two steps forward, one step back. Despite the unfortunate detention of several women activists, the appointments of Hind al-Zahid and Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan to key positions in the Saudi government represent an important landmark for the country.

Zahid is the kingdom’s first under-secretary for women’s empowerment and Princess Reema, who will represent the kingdom in the United States, is Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador. Their appointments fired the ambition of many Saudi women who want to represent the country in government but they also highlight the growing disparity in gains made by women workers in the kingdom’s private and public sectors.

Under Vision 2030, the government has implemented programmes that have achieved some success in feminising the kingdom’s private sector workforce. These efforts have not been mirrored in the public sector.

Understandably, the government is trying to shrink its payrolls as it transitions from a state-led to a market-driven economy. However, the drive should be balanced by a concerted effort to increase women’s representation in the state bureaucracy, especially in its upper echelons. The Saudi government can achieve this by imposing a gender quota system.

Although the results of the kingdom’s push to replace expatriate workers in the private sector with Saudi nationals have been mixed, Saudi women have, under Vision 2030, made unquestionable gains.

In 2011, the private sector employed 90,000 women. Today, that figure is 600,000, equivalent to 31% of all Saudi private sector workers. More remarkably, this figure is rising despite the marked economic slowdown that has accompanied new austerity measures, including steep rises in the price of electricity, water and gasoline, the loss of cheaper expat labour and the imposition of a 5% value added tax.

In the private sector, Saudi women own 39% of all small and medium-sized enterprises. Many others occupy senior roles with real decision-making power. This is especially true in banking and finance, health and human services, journalism and business, including colossal family-owned conglomerates such as the Olayan Group.

The government’s decision to amend the kingdom’s labour policies is partly responsible for the increase. Under Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the kingdom opened many retail industries previously closed to Saudi women, such as grocery stores, clothing shops, cosmetic stores and pharmacies, to female employees.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s government accelerated the process by relaxing workplace gender segregation laws, ending the women’s driving ban and discontinuing regulations that prevented women from owning a business without the consent of male guardians.

The Saudi government also introduced programmes designed to increase the number of women working in the private sector. The Hadaf Joint Training Programme teaches women (and men) hard (e.g., computer programming and English language) and soft (e.g., communication and customer service) skills and assists them in finding jobs that match their skill sets.

Other major programmes include Wasoul, which provides transportation stipends for working women, and the Qura Initiative, which subsidises childcare. Government-run universities, such as Effat and Dar al-Hekma, offer women’s entrepreneurship training as does King Saud University, which in 2017 opened the King Salman Institute for Entrepreneurship on its women’s campus.

If Saudi women have been the private sector’s biggest winners, they are arguably the public sector’s biggest losers. Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia pledged to decrease the size of the civil service by 20% by the end of 2020. Saudi women have borne the brunt of those cuts, with the number of female government employees shrinking from almost 724,000 in 2016 to 521,343 in 2018 -- a drop of 28% in two years.

In addition to the rapid decrease in the number of female bureaucrats, just 1.3% of Saudi women occupy senior positions in government, the lowest percentage in the G20. There are no Saudi women governors, ministers or senior advisers.

Women have been elected to municipal councils and make up 20% of the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary consultative body, but neither institution wields real decision-making authority. Tamader al-Rammah, the deputy minister for labour and social development, is the highest-ranking woman in government -- and the only woman deputy minister.

The government is in a bind. On the one hand, it needs to wean Saudi nationals off state-sponsored employment. On the other hand, empowering Saudi women who wish to work is essential to implementing economic transformation. Introducing gender quota systems in government may be the best way to balance these competing priorities.

Nearly half of the world’s countries mandate some type of quota for female representation in government. This list includes many Arab states. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, 50% of seats in the Federal National Council (a quasi-parliamentary body) are to be allocated to women in the next election.

However, the Saudi government will need to proceed cautiously if it wishes to avoid charges from conservatives, who cheered the detention of women driving activists, that it is purposefully “Westernising” the bureaucracy.

While the government can reasonably argue that employing women in the private sector is the only way to create the viable market economy and national labour force the kingdom needs to survive, no such rationale exists for government jobs.

Consequently, the kingdom should aim for a much more modest quota than the United Arab Emirates. Ensuring that women are represented in all sectors of government is more important than imposing gender parity.

Next, the kingdom needs to slowly elevate more women to positions of authority in accordance with Vision 2030, which aims to increase female representation in senior government jobs to 5%.

While the power and influence of Saudi conservatives is waning, it has not vanished, neither have the social and cultural barriers they imposed for decades. Under these conditions, quotas are the best way to guarantee Saudi women a voice in government and in their country’s future.