By Noor Shabib
Saudi Arabia is a country of kind hearts, strong values, great ambitions, and most importantly, it is my home. Sadly, most people do not see it through kind eyes. There are many misconceptions, specifically about women in Saudi Arabia. However, as a country, we have made great progress.
We have moved from strongly opposing women's education in the 1960s, to having women represent 55 percent of post-secondary students, according to the Ministry of Education. In 2015, women gained the right to vote and run in municipal elections with 20 women elected last December. Ten years earlier, Saudi Arabia's then ruler, King Abdullah, had mandated that the Shura, an exclusively male body since its inception, allocate 20 percent of its seats to women. This council represents the citizens and is responsible for advising the king on social and economic development. It also reviews and revises national laws and regulations.
In an effort to shed some light on what may seem like a black box, I offer you a window into my life and some of the women that I am blessed to call my friends. I admire these ladies and chose to highlight them because of the challenges they had to overcome to get to where they are.
Razan is a globally renowned fashion designer. In 2008, she co-founded a high-end Saudi clothing company with her sisters. Vogue Italia selected her as a top emerging designer and Razan's autumn 2016 collection was just launched at London's fashion week. Until recently, public service offices for women to support entrepreneurs were inexistent. Real estate agents would not speak to a woman, partly because of the discomfort of mixing, and partly because women were not taken seriously. When Razan started her business, she was denied service as she sought a location for her headquarters. She prevailed and there are now real estate agents for women who help to support them.
Dina is an investment banker who quit her job to start her own company, Etijah Coaching, providing career and business counseling in a broad array of sectors to clients in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dina was also the first woman to join the Board of Oqal, Saudi Arabia's first and largest angel investor community. In the past, when a woman established a company, unless it was an all-women business, she was not allowed to serve as its managing director. The law deems that a man must serve as managing director in a gender-mixed company. When Dina established her business, she could not be the managing director of her own company. Efforts by the Executive Council for Business Women have since led to a removal of this law.
At the helm of one of Saudi Arabia's leading family businesses is Noaf, vice president of corporate services at Rawabi Holding. She is a member of the Executive Council for Business Women in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce, and works to drive entrepreneurial activity as a board member of Oqal's Eastern Province chapter. Noaf heads diverse departments that include men and women of all ages, some from extremely conservative families. In our culture, there is an expectation that young people will listen to and obey their elders, and men's opinions carry more weight than women's do. Through her tact and patience, Noaf managed to gain everyone's respect and support, and to be influential despite being her company's youngest executive. Perceptions about youth have since changed and more women are demonstrating that they are competent, regardless of their age.
Hala, a banking sector pioneer, is a senior division head at the institutional banking group in one of the country's largest and oldest banks. She handles credit facilities and project financing for large institutions (minimum turnover 1 billion riyals) and is responsible for approximately 100 accounts. As part of her job, Hala needed to perform client due diligence. This required site visits to remote areas where w omen rarely, if ever, went. Her boss would sometimes suggest she did not need to go, genuinely out of concern. But she refused to cut corners and insisted on doing her job to the best of her ability. This kind of dynamic is also changing, and expectations are increasingly based on competencies and not gender.
My own story illustrates the reality of these and many Saudi women. As a woman engineer in the oil industry, I had observed the difficulties of navigating a mixed gender workplace, so in 2011, I co-founded Qudwa. This affinity group strives to increase the dialogue and raise awareness about gender differences in the workplace. Qudwa focuses on knowledge sharing and skill building, highlighting differences and gender biases around professional skills.
It is customary for men and women not to mix in social settings, and rarely in the workplace. This results in a poor understanding of gender differences. At Qudwa, we focus on professionalism, communication, and mutual expectations in our own cultural context. We discuss the importance of diversity and find that people are interested. They want to learn, and most importantly, they are open to change.
Life does not stop due to our circumstances. It just has a different rhythm. So, the next time someone tells you Saudi women lack ambition, please tell them about Noor and her friends. We may not be all the women of Saudi Arabia, but we are definitely a good representation of the persistence and ambition of Saudi women, and of greater things to come. Qudwa's mission will only become more relevant with the influx of women into the workforce, which has already increased by 48 percent since 2010. Wish us luck!
Noor Shabib works in Saudi Aramco's Transaction department. She earned an MBA from the University of Oxford, and is the first Saudi woman to have worked as a Schlumberger drilling field engineer on oil platforms in the UAE, India, and Australia. She is a 2015 Eisenhower Fellow, a premier global network of leaders from all sectors working to better the world.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What's Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations' theme for International Women's Day this year: "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality." To view all of the posts in the series, click here.