Saudi women are playing a major part in the socioeconomic transformation under Vision 2030. The government of Saudi Arabia is implementing a broad program of gender reforms for which it received international recognition. It is ranked first in the GCC and second in the Arab World in the World Bank Business and Law Report (2020) for twelve regulations pertaining to women. Examples of new amendments to the laws include protecting women from discrimination in employment and in accessing financial services. The retirement age for men and women has also been equalized at 60 years, prolonging women’s employment duration, earnings and contributions.
Along with the new policies, there has been a behavioral shift as many Saudi households realize the importance of women’s contribution to their overall prosperity. Indeed, there has been a rapid and substantial improvement over the last few years in key economic indicators for women. According to the Saudi Arabia General Authority for Statistics, women’s labor force participation rates increased from 19% in 2016 to 26% by the fourth quarter of 2019. Their employment also rose by around 9% during that period.
Nonetheless, many challenges remain. Half of young Saudi women are not employed, nor are they in education or training. Not all women can find jobs, especially first-time job seekers. Their unemployment rate had been 30.8% in 2019.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 and the decrease in oil prices threatens the progress to date. The reduction in economic growth resulted in many layoffs and an increase in the pool of unemployed people. Since the majority of unemployed women do not have work experience or training, they will be at a disadvantage when competing with other Saudis, both male and female, who are not first-time job seekers, but who were laid off due to the ongoing crisis.
Women who are employed in the private sector are particularly vulnerable. Private sector employment comprises a significant share of all employed females. However, they are concentrated in a few sectors and occupations such as retail and education which have been hit hard by COVID-19. As a result, female employment in these sectors is expected to face significant declines. On the other hand, women also work in the health and social work activities where they are on the front line of the crisis. Almost 45% of health care sector employees are women whose work demands have increased.
Furthermore, due to the crisis, schools and childcare facilities have remained closed since early March 2020. The demand for family and home related work, which falls primarily on women, has therefore increased. This may also discourage women from seeking employment or remaining in the workforce, thereby compounding their challenges.
Saudi women have made huge strides over the last few years with increased labor force participation rates and private sector employment. Notwithstanding these gains,In addition to social norms and the economic burden of unpaid work at home, far too many women lack work experience and are concentrated in few sectors and occupations. The government has already implemented many measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 such as the provision of wage subsidies to Saudis in the private sector. Additional support will be needed during this crisis. This may entail re-skilling and upskilling job seekers and employees and providing more opportunities for remote and flexible work.
COVID-19 pandemic should not be allowed to disrupt the the government reforms efforts. On the demand side, they can create incentives for employers to hire women, such as subsidizing a portion of maternity leave. On the supply side, they can encourage female employment or entrepreneurship by increasing maternity leave durations and by providing adequate childcare support for all employed women and those seeking employment.