The fight for female representation in Saudi Arabia

Written by
Karam Filfilan

13 Jun 2018

13 Jun 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

It’s an exciting time to be a Saudi female. The calibre of talent now is astonishing. I’ve been in recruitment for many years and the skill set of our female workers is so much better.”

As a senior HR manager at HSBC Saudi Arabia, Maha Al-Faleh has more experience than most when it comes to recruiting and developing female talent in the Kingdom. Her 10-year career in HR has taken in talent acquisition roles at several banking institutions and she has seen many changes in the female talent landscape over her career.

However, she believes the challenges facing working women are evolving. The fight is no longer about employment – it’s about breaking through the glass ceiling “Today, women can get jobs in pretty much all departments,” she observes. “The questions now are ‘do we have enough women at senior level?’ and ‘are we supporting women at middle management in taking that leap to the next level?’. It’s about the next step, but that’s a worldwide problem for women.”

The way women are perceived in Saudi Arabia is changing. For example, fuelled by Vision 2030’s stated aim of increasing female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%, in recent months a number of women have been appointed to key positions in business. July 2017 saw a profusion of female leadership appointments, with Rania Nashar promoted to CEO at Samba Financial Group, Sarah Al-Suhaimi selected as chair of the board of Tadawul, and Latifa Al-Sabhan becoming CFO at Arab National Bank.

Add to that the lifting of the ban on women drivers in the Kingdom, and the push to harness the skills and economic power of the Kingdom’s female workforce becomes even clearer.

Generational challenges

Al-Faleh may have spent her career in the banking sector, but her personal passion for advancing women at work came from her first job at Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women – a charity aiming to empower women in Saudi Arabia, both socially and economically, that was first set up in 1962 under the patronage of Queen Effat Al-Thunayan, the wife of King Faisal.

“I love working with people and I love making a difference,” says Al-Faleh. “When I worked in [Al Nahda], I was impacting people’s lives. I didn’t want to leave working with people for a corporate life, so I decided on HR. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

The HSBC manager has her own take on the evolution of female workers, believing that each generation of women has its own battles to fight. Ultimately, it’s about female workers demonstrating their ability and desire to develop new skill sets.

“Every generation has its own challenges. I don’t think my challenges were as scary as the ones my older colleagues had, but I do remember being one of only two females when I joined my first organisation. You constantly had to prove you were worth being there. It was exhausting, but it gave me an edge.

“I was given some advice early in my career – that I would have to work twice as hard as a man to be noticed,” she continues.

“That made sense then, but I wouldn’t give that advice to young women now. I think we bring extra value to an organisation, so being comfortable in your own skin is vital to being able to make a difference.” 

HSBC’s culture and values Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification will mean more opportunities for investment banks such as HSBC. The bank’s regional chief executive, Georges Elhedery, described Vision 2030 as “historic”, comparing it to seismic events such as China’s recent economic reforms and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. As the largest international bank in the Kingdom, HSBC is expected to increase its headcount in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Faleh believes HSBC’s culture encourages women to reach for the boardroom – and that this culture comes from the very top.

“Every opportunity here is open to both men and women,” she says. “We had a town hall meeting where our CEO told us he wouldn’t stop a woman from getting a job just because she was female. I know it’s easier said than done, but it helps so much when the CEO makes that sort of announcement.”

In practical terms, HSBC has increased its percentage of female to male workers from 16%-22% in two years. The company is focused on gender diversifying all areas of the business, with Al-Faleh stressing that it’s no good having one department full of female workers if others remain male dominated.

The bank encourages its female workforce to speak out if they need advice or a mentor. Al-Faleh freely admits to having been supported by mentors – both male and female – at various points in her career. She is now at a stage in her professional life where she can offer others advice.

“As a Saudi female in HR, I do feel a pressure to become a role model,” she admits. “Sometimes it’s exhausting, as there is a lot expected of me but it is something I’m trying to develop.”

Adding value by being yourself

So what is her key advice to others? Simple: “Just be yourself. “A couple of years ago, I was trying to hire a relationship manager in a global bank,” she explains. “For some reason, the global manager didn’t want to hire a woman because the role involved liaising with the government. I ignored his request and sent through both male and female applicants.

Eventually, he came to me and asked me to do the job, because I was ‘different’.

“The fact is, I’m not different,” she says. “He had a stereotype of women that wasn’t true. That’s why I say women add value the way they are. We don’t need to be something we’re not to get opportunities.

“Men and women complete each other. I’ve learned a lot working with men and I want to believe they’ve learned a lot working with me,” she smiles.