Female Economic Participation In Saudi Arabia

By Firas Abo Mrad

Cover picture from siesta.com

One of the most prominent global economic developments of the past century is the rise in of the female labor force participation. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has witnessed a drastic change in the demographics of its labor force in a very short time. While 20% of women were working in 2018, in late 2020 and despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic, the percentage increased to 33%. Saudi women of all ages started joining the workforce and taking on jobs that were previously restricted to men only such as working in accounting, supermarkets and graphic design companies (Tamayo, Koettl & Rivera, 2021). Nonetheless, the active participation of women in the labor force was, unfortunately, coupled with numerous challenges and struggles. Bearing this in mind, the following research question is warranted: What are the challenges faced by women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what are some policies that governments and human resources can adopt to alleviate the challenges?

Women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia face numerous challenges related to accessing jobs in both the private and public sectors. To understand the struggles, as part of a qualitative study conducted by Al-Asfour, Tlaiss, Khan & Rajasekar (2017) , twelve women, all of whom held university degrees and were employed in different industries, were interviewed. The findings suggest that all participants claimed to be restricted to working in traditionally deemed female-oriented jobs only, in both public and private sectors. Despite the fact that they could work in shopping centers, they did not feel they actually had access to working in such places. One participant even said “I have become a teacher, and I could try to become a principal, but something higher, like superintendent, is almost impossible for a woman in Saudi Arabia.” In fact,  women are banned from joining the board that governs the educational establishment in the KSA(Alsubhi, Hoque & Razak, 2018). Another participant highlighted that the lack of access of Saudi women is due to  the cultural and societal stereotypes instead of religion. She believes women do not have equal access to men due to men’s perceived power and superiority over women (Al-Asfour et al, 2017). Similar finding was also generated by Alhamadi (2017). The author found that in spite of the increase in the number of women taking on leadership roles in the Saudi society, the traditional principles and practices prohibit women from advancing in their careers. On a parallel note, there is actually a law in the country that states women are allowed to work in industries that is suitable to their nature and bans them from taking on jobs that are risky or detrimental to their health. In practice, companies have translated this law into disallowing women from working in any type of physically challenging positions, even minor ones (Michaelson, 2019). As for governmental positions, the based on the latest World Bank report (2020), women constitute to 19.87% of the national parliaments. Although there is a massive improvement from 0% in 2003, further work is needed to reach equality. 

Another challenge that women face in Saudi Arabia is related to a  lack of quality in the workplace. Saudi Arabia is deemed one of the most gender segregated countries in the world (Michaelson, 2019) as a result, gender bias is largely prevalent. Although it stopped being legally required to separate male and female in the workplace in 2005, some companies such as The Luna food factory remain doing so in an effort to protect the women from gender bias and discrimination. Elghamdi is a woman who works as a data entry at the food factory, she claims to vote in favor of separating men and women from one another in the workplace as she believes this way, women will experience fewer incidents of discrimination by their male colleagues (Michaelson, 2019). Additionally, in the category of gender discrimination, there is clear pay gap between both genders, even among those who perform the exact same job. The Arabian Business (2018) has found that in the private sector, Saudi women are paid 56% less than their male colleagues, a statistic that places KSA at number 107 out of 198 countries in the worldwide gender pay gap. In the regard of the challenges faced by women in KSA, it is fundamental to raise the idea that there are several drivers of challenges in the Saudi culture. In short, Saudi Muslim women are fully committed to their families, have limited access to professional and developmental trainings, and they have limited networks and organizational support (Al-Asfour et al, 2017). With a few policies in place, the challenges can be overcome. 

There are numerous comprehensive and cohesive policies that the Saudi Arabian government should adopt to alleviate the challenges faced by women in the public and private sectors. Even the sustainable development goals are  (Goal 5) dedicated to achieving gender equality and empowering women and goals. First and foremost, laws should protect female employees the same way they protect male employees. As per the International Labor Organization (ILO), there should be social protection and clear wage policies that address the inequalities and gender discrimination. More importantly, the policy must ensure there are equal opportunities for both genders. That is both genders should not only be equally valued in the workplace, but also given similar quality of work (United National Platform, 2020). Furthermore, there should be a policy that natures the growth of women in the labor force. Women should be granted the opportunity to opening up startup companies or any other type of companies as per their will, as well as inherit businesses and assets either from their spouses or from their parents (Morse, 2020). They should have equal opportunities as men to level up within a company. Higher positions should purely be based on competency and skillset and never based on gender (Morse, 2020). After all, women in high positions have always proved their capability of resolving national problems, crises, and create better environments in the workplace (Morse, 2020). Women who are granted high positions in companies have the capability of working under pressure, find solutions, as well as helping the company to grow. 

Apart from the governmental policies, human resources themselves must adopt policies within their companies to offer a promising working environment for both genders. Given that human resource is the department that holds the main responsibility of recruiting employees, administrating the benefits that employees have in the workplace, and managing the life cycle of employees, it has the responsibility of adopting policies in all stages of employment to tackle the problem of bias. Starting with the hiring process, companies must allow both genders to apply for and be accepted to any position. Even more, they should specify a quota for both genders to ensure gender equality is achieved in addition to offering both genders equal pay and equal training and developmental opportunities through mentorship(Onley, 2016). Additionally, policies must be adopted that make it illegal to discriminate against any person based on gender. The policy must  include unfair treatment, biased treatment, harassment, sexual discrimination and other unethical acts (Nie, Lamsa & Pucetaite, 2018). In this regard, it is known that setting examples within the workplace helps deter future inappropriate actions from employees. Therefore, regardless of the rank of employee, when disrespect and other unethical acts are reported, after conducting investigation, the responsible person should receive the punishment deserved. This will allow women to feel safer in their workplaces to say the least. In addition to the previous ideas, promoting supporting environments for both genders and offering nurturing and naturing surrounding based on need is crucial. An example includes offering paid maternal and paternal leaves for new parents, and offering women the needed support to continue working after becoming new mothers. This includes offering them paid leave, working from home opportunities or even part-time jobs (Worthington & Volerman, 2019). All these policies when enforced promote a workplace that is grounded on respect and equality, a factor that is fundamental for economic prosperity.

In conclusion, in the recent decade, higher number of women have been joining the working force in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that the change looks promising, especially that it has been happening in a short period of time, unfortunately, many women continue to face numerous challenges in both, the public and private sectors. The most prominent challenges are related to the lack of accessibility to women to reach higher positions and restrictions at place for some jobs, and the gender-based bias and discrimination they face on relatively regularly in their workplaces. Nonetheless, the government on a large scale and human resources on a company-based scale must adopt relevant policies to address the challenges and alleviate the burden on women employees. Through offering nurturing and supportive environment to women, their productivity, efficiency and effectivity will increase, a factor that will lead to economic growth and subsequently country development. 


Al-Asfour, A., Tlaiss, H. A., Khan, S. A., & Rajasekar, J. (2017). Saudi women’s work challenges and barriers to career advancement. Career Development International.

Alsubhi, A. A., Hoque, K. E., & Razak, A. Z. (2018). Workplace barriers and leadership conflicts experienced by the women in higher education in Saudi Arabia. International Journal of Learning and Development8(2), 1-17.

Michaelson, R. (2019). An “Oasis” for women? Inside Saudi Arabia’s vast few female-only workspaces. The Guardian. 

Morse, M. M. (2020). Five things world leaders can do now to advance gender equality. United Nations Foundation. Retrieved from https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/five-things-world-leaders-can-do-right-now-to-advance-gender-equality/

Nie, D., Lämsä, A. M., & Pučėtaitė, R. (2018). Effects of responsible human resource management practices on female employees’ turnover intentions. Business Ethics: A European Review27(1), 29-41.

Onley, D. (2016). HR key in helping employers achieve gender equality. Society for Human Resource Management. 

Tamayo, S. G., Koettl, J. & Rivera, N. (2021). The spectacular surge of the Saudi female labor force. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2021/04/21/the-spectacular-surge-of-the-saudi-female-labor-force/

The Arabian Business (2018). Saudi women paid up to 56% less. The Arabian Business. Retrieved from https://www.arabianbusiness.com/politics-economics/387618-saudi-women-paid-up-to-56-less

The World Bank (2020). Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament- Saudi Arabia. The World Bank. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS?locations=SA

Worthington, R. O., Feld, L. D., & Volerman, A. (2019). Supporting new physicians and new parents: a call to create a standard parental leave policy for residents. Academic Medicine94(11), 1654-1657.

Edited by Zeina Abdel Latif
Copy edited by Alissar Izrafeel

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