Bringing Saudi women back into the workplace

Khalid Alkhudair, a Saudi entrepreneur, has become an unlikely champion of women’s causes — but he says change begins at home.

When Khalid Alkhudair was launching his groundbreaking initiative aimed at finding jobs for Saudi women, he had to look no further than his own family for inspiration. His sister Aia, 27, a psychology graduate, spent seven months searching for a job without getting so much as an interview.

“She would go out with a driver to different companies and would not be allowed in because the human resources department would be male only,” says Alkhudair, the founder of the Glowork women-only recruitment platform. “So she would leave her CV with the security desk and they would probably just chuck it in the bin. She did not even get an interview.”

Then there was their mother, who spent the best part of two decades studying first medicine, then dentistry on three different continents at British, Canadian and Saudi universities before she was deemed qualified enough to work as a dentist.

So in 2011 Alkhudair, then aged 28, quit his high-powered, lucrative job as accountancy firm KPMG’s chief operating officer in the Middle East and North Africa and took the plunge as an entrepreneur. His idea in launching Glowork was to create “an online platform that connects female jobseekers to employers”. He has helped secure jobs for more than 27,000 women in five years with aims to help 50,000 by next year.

But Saudi Arabia is no easy recruitment ground, particularly where women are concerned, with a minefield of legal, religious and cultural ramifications to tiptoe through.

While there is nothing to stop women from working, employers have to provide segregated areas for them to work in, making them reluctant to hire women with the extra expense involved in setting up separate working and childcare facilities.

And with women still prevented from driving, the logistics of getting to and from a workplace are laden with difficulty – not to mention the cultural taboo women face by taking public roles.

Alkhudair, now 33, discovered that to his detriment soon after launching Glowork. He found jobs for about a dozen women as cashiers in a Panda supermarket but there was such a public outcry, they had to quit.

“We got into trouble with the public because it was the first time women had worked in public spaces outside hospitals,” he says.

“People’s perception was that it was shameful – but there are women who want to work. They were the ones who decided to work as cashiers and they were wearing full niqab.

“It was a test in one supermarket in Jeddah but people were posting comments on Twitter and YouTube saying it was wrong and the women had issues with their families so they decided to quit.”

The move by the retail chain to appoint a total of 16 women—which incredibly sparked the headline ‘women cashiers in Saudi supermarket!’—led to a backlash from religious scholars. Despite the cashiers working in check-out lanes reserved for women and families, professor Youssef Al-Ahmad from Riyadh’s Imam University led calls for a boycott of the supermarket amid claims gender mixing was against the tenets of Islam and a sign of the increasing westernisation of Islamic culture.

The naysayers might have succeeded in driving the women out of their jobs then but change was already afoot. That backlash marked a watershed for Alkhudair as he instead decided to win over men rather than women.

“It opened up different horizons for us,” he says. “We wanted to change the way we approached things so we stopped marketing to women and started marketing to men. All our communication was directed towards men—as employers, employees, as fathers, as sons—for them to understand the importance of women working.”

Crucially, he also forged links with the Saudi government, which gave him access to its database of 1.6 million unemployed women. As well as the government subsidising Glowork’s research into women’s productivity, the company is paid a fee for placements and receives a payment every time a woman on unemployment benefit finds work through the scheme.

Much of Glowork’s focus is offline, says Alkhudair, with only five per cent of business coming from its online platform, where jobs are posted, women can add their CVs and employers can search for potential candidates with the right skills. That could soon change with the launch of the Glowork app earlier this year. It aims to take recruitment to another level with a geomapping function which alerts registered women whenever they pass within 500 metres of a company with a vacancy. At the same time, women can post their own profiles and CVs, message one another and access targeted product offers.

Meanwhile, Glowork’s real world activities involve its 68 staff actively lobbying companies which have never hired women.

“We have become job creators,” says Alkhudair. “We would go to companies which never hired women and try to convince them to do so. We would do the filtering and screening for them and connect them with women who were unemployed. They send us their job descriptions, we do the interview process and then we send ready candidates to the employers.”

Glowork currently interviews 1,000 women a week and fields 5,000 phone calls each week. Staff have been active in persuading companies to create virtual posts for women, simultaneously overcoming the social taboo of women working in offices in close proximity to men and the challenge of reducing unemployment with 50 per cent of all those out of work living in rural areas.

Alkhudair says: “It is not that hard for women to work from home but for men to understand the extra diversified income that could come into the household is very important.”

The law is changing too, albeit painfully slowly. The late King Abdullah announced in 2011 he would begin appointing women to the shura advisory council. A year later a law was passed ruling only women could work in lingerie and accessory shops, creating “about 400,000 jobs just like that,” says Alkhudair. An increasing number of companies, including Bupa Arabia and Almarai, have been active in creating better childcare facilities and job opportunities for women.

Meanwhile Glowork—which has also launched a Glofit women-only gym—attracted 65,000 women to its annual careers fair last year, where more than 270 organisations exhibited and hired 3,600 recruits in one day. Alkhudair says he now wants to expand to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kenya and Uganda.

“We want to change the perception of the Arab world when it comes to women, empowerment and women in employment,” he says. “Five years ago there were 46,000 women working in the private sector. Today there are more than 500,000. There are a lot of role models but we do not hear enough storytelling about it.”