A Female Professional in Saudi Arabia
An American female, I worked as a consultant in Saudi Arabia for about five months, and I am often asked about this experience. Did I have to cover my hair? Was I respected? Is it as bad as it sounds?
Female consultants absolutely can and do achieve significant success in Saudi Arabia. Generally, foreign women’s treatment is more determined by the reputation of their company than their gender. I led trainings for all-male Saudi clients in closed rooms and provided counsel on organizational strategy and economics.
Nonetheless, even foreign women do not operate with the same freedom as their male counterparts. Women must be constantly alert to the potential of giving offense. I consistently checked my behavior with questions such as, “Should I shake hands with this client, or is he offended by a women’s touch?” Moreover, unconscious bias regarding women’s capabilities makes it more difficult for female consultants to build trust with clients.
Finally, foreigners’ experience is not representative of Saudi women’s daily life. Taxiing between hotels and clients and returning to Dubai on weekends, foreign consultants do not confront restrictive laws governing women’s legal rights to obtain passports or register businesses. Additionally, many informal societal norms do not apply to foreigners. I did not worry about the negative ramifications my family could face when sharing a car with male colleagues.
Ultimately, my actions did not threaten the country’s societal fabric in the same way as would the exact same actions by a Saudi woman. While the presence of intelligent and confident Western business women plays a role in normalizing greater female empowerment, Saudi-led reforms will play a greater role in advancing women’s freedom. (For examples of Saudi women truly breaking barriers, follow Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran, Saudi Arabia’s first license lawyer or Hayat Sindi, the first women to serve on Saudi Arabia’s consultive council — http://www.barakabits.com/2014/11/7-successful-saudi-women-beat-stereotype)