What it's like to be a woman entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia

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[The Wamda media team with Diana Rayyan of Trochet at our W4Women Riyadh roundtable]

What most of the world knows about Saudi Arabia is that it can be a very difficult place for working women. The country ranks low for gender parity: 130th out of 134, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report. According to Cisco, an estimated 30% of Saudi women looking for jobs can’t find them, despite the fact that 78% of unemployed women have a university education.

What many might not know is that women are driving change, opening companies, and proceeding to create new job opportunities in the Kingdom, largely under the radar (meet Tasneem Salim of the first local women's gaming community, GCom, and Diana Rayyan of socially-minded art initiative Trochet).

Laws are slowly changing; the government has recently granted women the right to vote and be appointed to the Consultative Shura Council. The 30 women now appointed, with limited power, include Hayat Sindi, who we interviewed last year about her work to boost innovation in the Kingdom. With government incentives now offering companies double credit for every woman they hire, as compared to every man, the hope is that opportunities for women will continue to grow.

Yet most women in Saudi, like entrepreneurs everywhere, aren't waiting on the government. 

At our recent Wamda for Women roundtable in Riyadh this May, we met with more pioneering women we, who are working hard to expand their businesses from Riyadh. Over an hour of mostly positive discussions, they candidly revealed their challenges and triumphs, which echoed the results from other Wamda for Women sessions in EgyptQatar, and Jordan. While they faced several negative stereotypes, the culture was shifting, they said, a statement that could just as easily have been spoken in Silicon Valley.

Women need to shift cultural attitudes by instilling a better sense of gender equality in their children, they concluded and women need to stand up for themselves in the workplace and institute structures that prove their worth to their peers and superiors. Here's a closer look at their thoughts.

Stereotypes and Role Models

On our first table, we discussed both the stereotypes that entrepreneurs face and their approaches to role models.

Interestingly, less women in Saudi Arabia said that negative stereotypes affected their work than in Qatar: 25% as opposed to 100%. While 25% said that they felt empowered at work, over half (58%) said that they felt they were fighting to prove themselves.

75% of women said they had a role model, most (42%) citing a parent or relative, and 16% citing a famous individual. Yet only 8% said they were actively working to empower women.

The stereotypes women face included:

  1. Women don’t stand up for themselves. Stereotypes exist throughout Saudi about women being meek, and this affects women’s experiences in the workplace. Yet men’s perceptions are shifting, they said.
     
  2. Women are seen as more productive and more committed to their jobs than men.  Local companies prefer to hire women, several women said. 
     
  3. Women are also seen as a positive for companies. Looking for a job is sometimes easier for women than men, because of government incentives for hiring women.  While there are no specific maternity laws for women in Saudi, if a workplace has over 20 employees who are female, it can open a nursery, women said.
     
    Women on the negotiation and finance table noted another negative stereotype, pointing out that:  
     
  4. Men and women both think that women are less productive once they have children. “Men’s stereotypes dictate their perception of what women can do,” one woman said on the table. “Women have the same stereotypes,” another added. A few also noted that Western bosses gave more negative feedback than Middle Eastern bosses, whether because of their stereotypes or expectations.  

    When it comes to role models, the women discussing steretotypes and role models agreed that:
     
  5. Women in senior positions should point to opportunities for working from home, because women can lead by illustrating to others that working doesn’t necessarily need to interfere with their home life.
     
  6. Successful women should be highlighted, as they reflect positively on women in general and shift the perspective of the next generation in Saudi.
     
  7. Women are often their own role models. None of the women on the table cited an individual as a role model, often saying that they served as their own inspiration. 

Work/Life Balance and Negotiation & Finance

On the second table, which discussed both work/life balance and negotiation & finance, 50% the women present said that having enough time for work and family was a major challenge, while 37.5% said that they would like more flexibility. 25% said they needed more help at home, and another 25% said that finding the right partner was crucial.

When it came to getting funding, 50% of the women on the table (4 out of 8) had secured financing, 2 from friends and family, 1 from their own pocket, and 1 from their business partner. 5 out of 8 (62.5%) said that negotiating was a struggle as a woman.

  1. Social obligations are a challenge. Several entrepreneurs pointed to the fact that their families didn’t always understand when they would excuse themselves from family events to work on their companies. “Age and experience help,” one woman in her 40s smiled.
     
  2. Women-led companies are more women-friendly. Some women in Saudi seemed to have more benefits than women working in many other countries in the Arab world, because their workplaces were segregated and thus catered to women with a nursery and support for young mothers.
     
  3. Some women have unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement, the women on the table said. Some reject their workloads, expecting to be “pampered,” some said. “Hiring men is easier,” one woman said. Yet, “men have the exact same problem,” another countered. 
     
  4. It’s difficult to negotiate, especially because nothing is transparent. Men and women have different names and different wages for similar positions, women explained. 
     
  5. Working outside the home shifts the gender power dynamic. “I don’t talk to my husband about my work,” one woman said, and many nodded: making a husband feel as though his wife works harder or is getting further ahead was not viewed as productive. 
     
  6. Clear evaluation methods are needed. Those who were working with or managing teams of women noted that it can be difficult for male colleagues and superiors to assess their work when they are only meeting infrequently.
     
  7. Entrepreneurs need more support. “Men and well-established big organizations have every little faith with working with young women entrepreneurs.”
     
  8. The driving laws need to change. “Driving is THE issue,” one woman said emphatically. You have to schedule your driver among your family, and drivers are expense, attendees said.

Overall Solutions:

  1. Weeding out the entitled. To address entitlement, the women pointed to the importance of training systems.  “I try to tell young women to focus on building a career.” It’s important to align each individual’s personal goals with the company goals, she pointed out, and to focusing on strict interviews to see who’s willing to work to improve.
     
  2. Creating clear reporting systems. “I send my boss statistics on my accomplishments everyday,” one woman said. Most of the women on the table agreed that it was up to them to instigate a clearer feedback system to make their work visible. 
     
  3. Advocating for clearer laws around maternity. While it wasn’t a large complaint, several women noted that a lack of clear laws around maternity leave put them at a disadvantage. Women should advocate to ensure that reliable nurseries are available at their workplaces, they said.
     
  4. Women should prove themselves. Many women on the table agreed that even if their brothers, husbands, or bosses initially doubted them, once they worked and proved their ability, they were often able to shift perceptions. Things are slowly changing, they said. 
     
  5. The onus is on women to shift social norms. All of these issues can be addressed with a shift in culture, women on the table agreed. “I pay for my kids’ education and I’m proud of that,” said one entrepreneur. Others said their husbands wouldn’t let them pay. But most women at the table vowed that they would raise their children differently so that both the girls and boys felt responsible.

Overall, with the exception of legal issues, these conclusions simply aren’t that different from what, say, Sheryl Sandberg advocates that women do to close the gender gap, from Silicon Valley. If there’s one conclusion from our W4Women roundtable in Riyadh, it’s that the struggles that Saudi women face reflect the struggles of women everywhere. 

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