it’s pretty good for Saudi Arabia, where only 18% of women had jobs or were looking for one in 2010.
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That increase is in part due to the work of a recruitment agency called Glowork. With the blessing and backing of Saudi authorities, Glowork has helped tens of thousands of women find jobs in fields like banking, HR, sales, and design.
Glowork was founded by Khalid Alkhudair, a Saudi national and seasoned KPMG executive, who, in the early 2010s, became more aware of how difficult the job market could be for women after his sister struggled to find work. His resolve was also shaped by an earlier episode—in 2010, Alkhudair had advised the Panda chain of grocery stores, one of the largest in Saudi Arabia, to hire women cashiers. But once the company did so, hardliners protested, and Panda moved them off the shop floors.
“People weren’t very happy about that,” Alkhudair told Arabian Business, referring to the decision to hire women cashiers. “At that time, it was the first time that women had worked in a public space outside hospitals.”
The backlash informed Alkhudair’s thinking in Glowork’s early years, when soothing conservative opposition was more urgent (since then, the Saudi government’s support for women in the workplace has helped change attitudes). Glowork at first encouraged companies to set up arrangements where women could work from home.
Its success meant that Saudi authorities took note. In the past near-decade, getting women into the workforce has become a government priority. Glowork played no small role in this—the organization’s leaders were reportedly asked to advise on legislation that would soon expand the number of job fields women were permitted to work in.
Women have long been in the workforce in Saudi Arabia, but only in very small numbers. In 2011, two decrees from the late King Abdullah made getting more women to find jobs an economic imperative.
In March 2011, Abdullah ruled that Saudis would be eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time ever. The move was generally interpreted as a bid to prevent any revolutionary fervor, which had swept Arab countries like Tunisia and Egypt months earlier, from crashing onto Saudi shores. But who claimed unemployment took many aback—more than 80% would turn out to be women, in a country with a population that is 43% female. Having so many female claimants showed that a larger, systemic imbalance might be at play.
Three months later, in June 2011, King Abdullah decreed that lingerie shops would only be staffed by women. The measure served two goals: getting more women to work, and ending a longstanding practice of hiring exclusively male sales clerks, which made nearly all Saudi women uncomfortable shoppers. Both conservatives, who for years have disliked interacting with male clerks, and reformists who wanted more job fields opened to women, welcomed the decree.
Not long after, the Ministry of Labor ordered stores that carried other products targeted towards women, including cosmetics and wedding dresses, to hire all-female staff, a process the kingdom called “feminization.” Shops that did not comply were forced to shut down.
Glowork was a child of these circumstances, and the beneficiary of fortuitous timing. It was founded in May 2011, in the period between these two decrees. Many more fields were about to be open to women—and Saudi authorities were likely keen to get more off unemployment.
“Well actually… we started with a partnership with the Ministry of Labor and HRDF, which is the Human Resources Development Fund, to place or find jobs for those who are registering in the [unemployment] system,” said Ghaida AlMutairi, Glowork’s female executive director, and a former event manager at the company.
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