Saudi Arabia has traditionally had low rates of female labour force participation, as legislative, social, educational and occupational constraints prevented women from fully taking part in the labour market. Vision 2030 – the Kingdom’s blueprint for socio-economic transformation – sought to create a society and economy in which women could play a much fuller role. As such, the Kingdom has adopted a series of measures in recent years to empower women in society and encourage their participation in economic life.
Reforms for Women
According to the World Bank’s 2020 and 2021 “Women, Business and the Law” reports, Saudi Arabia was one of the top countries in the world in terms of the implementation of reforms related to women. The Kingdom achieved the highest score of 100 on five indicators: mobility, the workplace, entrepreneurship, retirement and pay. Among the most notable of recent laws affecting women are: the Civil Status Law, the Labour Law, the Social Insurance Law, the Traffic Law and the Travel Document Law. Such legal reforms grant women more autonomy in their daily lives to make decisions about their future and access economic opportunities, helping Saudi women become more active in society, business and government.
The education sector in Saudi Arabia plays a major role in the process of female empowerment. Removing barriers to study and work, and addressing inequalities in academia and universities, has granted women access to more opportunities across the Saudi economy. Educational reforms, including the introduction of new government scholarships to encourage female students to study a range of in-demand and specialised subjects, aim to link students’ qualifications with careers available in the labour market, while also encouraging women to aspire to leadership roles within their chosen careers. The reforms appear to be doing well, with the gross tertiary education enrolment rate in Saudi Arabia standing at 74% for women in 2020, and the rate for men at 71%.
Progress & Challenges
One of the main goals of Vision 2030 was to increase the participation rate of women in the workforce to over 30%, and in two years (2018-20) the share of Saudi women in the labour market grew by approximately 60%, according to the World Bank. Indeed, in 2019 and 2020 female employment in the private sector grew in most economic activities, with the highest growth recorded in the accommodation and food sector (40%), followed by administrative and support services (37%), according to figures from the General Authority for Statistics. As such, the female unemployment rate decreased from 32% in the fourth quarter of 2018 to around 22% in the second quarter of 2021.
Despite these achievements, gender gaps in workforce participation, as well as in career development and compensation, remain. According to research by Alnahda Society, a Saudi non-profit organisation focused on female empowerment, Saudi women earn approximately SR57 ($15.18) for every SR100 ($26.63) earned by Saudi men. Overall, the study found that Saudi men earn 43% more than women with similar education and experience. To address these disparities in education and work experience, major employers in the Kingdom have begun to introduce training and mentorship opportunities for female employees so that they might see a more structured and attainable path for progression, aided by benefits such as maternity leave and child care support.
Private sector efforts are being supported by legal reforms to encourage women to enter the labour market, including prohibitions on the dismissal of pregnant women, and discrimination based on gender in employment and in access to credit. Additional reforms have equalised the retirement ages for men and women, and mandated pension care credits for maternity leave. Such reforms have already begun to have positive impacts on millions of Saudi women over the age of 21, and should continue to benefit future generations.