BOSTON—What happens to Arab women when they leave higher education? That topic got a quick treatment, with a special focus on Saudi Arabia, in a session last week at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.
Policymakers worry that Arab women are powerhouses in education but their energy and talents are underutilized in the workplace. Statistics make it clear that this disparity is well worth worrying about, but speakers in a session on “Arab women building a place in the workforce” said there is an often-unseen positive side. (See related story: “Women in the Gulf: Better Educated But Less Employed.”)
Amal Jamil Fatani, supervisor for female affairs at the Saudia Arabia’s Ministry of Higher Education, said 370,000 women are employed in the kingdom and that Saudi women are turning up in droves at job fairs.
A former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James B. Smith, who served under President Barack Obama for four years ending in 2013, said that some sectors of the Saudi economy, such as banking, were successfully introducing more female employees. In banking, he said, managers were often finding female employees to be better workers than their male counterparts. The women show up on time, since they have professional drivers (women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia) and do not need to leave work to drive female relatives around, as the men often do. (Expatriate drivers can eat up a lot of the male employee’s income if they don’t do some of the driving themselves.) The female employees were also sticking around until the end of the workday and focusing on their work in a zealous effort to prove themselves, Smith said.
“Saudi Arabia will never be a great country when half of it’s intellectual capital is on the sidelines,” said Smith. And the Saudis “know that.”
Saudi higher education is gearing up to push out more and more graduates, male and female. The number of Saudi universities went from eight to 32 in 15 years, Smith said. Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, an all-female institution with a new campus that officially opened in 2011, has the capacity for up to 60,000 women.
The employment picture for Saudi women may be affected by recent changes in the King Abdullah scholarship program. That program, which gives “full-ride” government scholarships to Saudi students to study abroad, is possibly the largest government-sponsored study abroad program in the world since it is backed by Saudi oil reserves. About 55,000 former scholarship students have already completed their studies and returned to the kingdom, and 150,000 are outbound at the moment.
Changes in the program that emerged in discussion at the session will mean that the government will decide which disciplines the students will study. Students who agree to focus on those areas will then get guaranteed jobs upon their return to the kingdom. The new program is styled more after the scholarships of Aramco, the Saudi oil company, which sends students off to study quite specific fields of study, such as supply chain management, and requires students who change their field of study to pay the company back.
In the new version of the King Abdullah scholarship program, almost 13,000 scholarships have already been awarded in the past couple of weeks in fields such as renewable energy, water desalination, insurance and banking, said Fatani, of the education ministry.
The downside for some Saudi women is that the fields they can study may be increasingly prescribed by the government. The upside? They won’t have to leap over barriers to employment upon their return.
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