Khalid Alkhudair is strengthening the role of women in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf by carving out new professional work opportunities for women and then integrating them into the workforce.
The New Idea
In a society guided by traditions and laws that make it nearly impossible for most women to find a job, Khalid is working to both change perceptions of women in the workforce and create meaningful avenues for women to secure jobs. Khalid’s work has three key thrusts. First, he has built an online platform that fills the gap between women seeking jobs and the companies that are ready to hire them. Already, Khalid’s organization Glowork has used unemployment records to build a database of 1.2 million unemployed Saudi women, and it has helped over 26,000 women find jobs in the kingdom by establishing partnerships with both Saudi and international corporations. Second, Khalid works with the Saudi Ministry of Labor to change policies that make it difficult for companies to hire women by proposing and passing new laws mandating the hiring of women in several sectors including retail and manufacturing. Third, Khalid is launching a series of marketing campaigns that encourage both Saudi men and women to think differently about the role of women in the workplace. Khalid’s ultimate goal is to have women represent 50 percent of the Saudi workforce.
As the first job portal for women in Saudi Arabia, Khalid’s initiative is paving the way for women’s employment to grow quickly in the Gulf region, in part by shifting mindsets to favor gender diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Moroever, he is not only giving women an entry point to access the workplace, he is also promoting equality by bringing together a new generation of strong and independent Saudi women who are ready to break free from traditional stereotypes.
For many Saudi women, full participation in the workforce remains an elusive goal despite women’s improved education levels. With increased access to modern education, more than 60 percent of university students are women. Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia and the largest women’s university in the world, has had more than 50,000 students graduate in the past decade. Yet workforce participation rates for women in Saudi Arabia remain alarmingly low. According to a 2010 study by Booz & Company, a global management consulting firm, less than 15 percent of the labor market in Saudi is made up of women. Of the estimated 1.6 million unemployed in Saudi Arabia, 1.2 million are women. The vast majority of these unemployed women are highly educated and qualified to enter the job market when an opportunity arises; in fact, 78 percent are university graduates and highly qualified for many of the jobs on the market.
The proportion of Saudi women working is one of the lowest rates in the Arab region due to legal, logistical, and cultural restrictions that limit the type and place of work available to them. Saudi laws and regulations, including the segregation law, stipulate that different genders should be separated in the workplace. Accordingly, many businesses are discouraged by the high cost of maintaining separate premises for both genders. They find it economically prohibitive. These laws also deem a variety of professional occupations unsuitable for women and limit women’s ability to search for jobs because of restrictions on driving and interacting without male accompaniment.
Finding information about positions open to women is also a challenge. Most companies have outdated websites, making it difficult for women to search online for new positions. As a result, women mainly work in the health sector or as teachers. Access to these jobs is usually available only by recommendations done as personal favors, rather than on a merit-based approach and a public announcement of vacancies. Even if a woman can access one of these few job opportunities, she will still face additional cultural barriers discouraging her from working outside the home.
The current system imposes huge costs on both women and on society. The government pays unemployment benefits to women (and men), which reached a high of $1 billion in 2011. Furthermore, the demand for employing Saudi nationals has increased due to a 2012 government-mandated quota limiting the ability of private businesses to employ non-Saudi nationals. Many companies are turning to women to fill the quota but don’t know how to reach women effectively.
In order to create new work opportunities for Saudi women and shift gender roles in the workforce, Khalid set up Glowork. Khalid started by assembling a team of experts from different fields who were skilled in training methods, research & development, and learning & development. The online platform they built provides easy access to the Saudi job market. Virtual marketing and clear presentation of information on the portal help women overcome mobility barriers and limited communication channels to both find and seek new employment opportunities. Glowork’s platform has encouraged women to post their CVs and companies to welcome female applicants to their job openings. All services are offered at no cost to female job seekers and citizen organizations (COs), however, private companies pay a small fee to join the network. With all profits reinvested into expanding Glowork’s social impact, Khalid’s model serves as a precedent in the country for a fee-for-service organization devoted to a social cause.
Khalid goes beyond the job matching to create new strategies to increase over-all female workforce participation by getting companies used to hiring women. Rather than confronting the current cultural norm that encourages women to work from home, Khalid came up with an innovative work-from-home solution. His “Virtual Office” initiative allows women living in remote areas and those who prefer to work from home to do so through technology. This advanced technology simulates all the needed resources that are in an actual office space while providing businesses with a way to track their employees’ performance, from customer service to research to sales. The Virtual Office system can even be adapted to cater to women with special needs and is convenient for women living in rural and isolated areas to actively seek jobs and work from home.
To date, Glowork has created over 6,000 jobs for women; 50 dedicated to women with special needs, which signals a significant step toward promoting another level of inclusion. Currently, the website carries a database of over 1.2 million CVs of highly qualified women and 159 companies who are committed to recruit from this pool.
To build the supply of qualified women seeking employment on his platform, Khalid established relationships with every university and college in the region that has female representation, to ensure that educational institutions are aware of his initiative and share new job postings with female students seeking employment. Khalid also provides practical support by conducting weekly in-person workshops to instill positive career aspirations within young women beyond traditionally accepted roles. He reaches graduating female students by organizing job fairs, which bring the companies to the universities, while also promoting internship opportunities. Before Khalid entered the universities, only male students were encouraged to pursue internship opportunities for college credit. He is reorienting young students and introducing them to companies earlier in their college careers.
Khalid is also tapping into new sectors which are currently occupied by immigrant males but which are more appropriate for women. For example, Khalid negotiated with the Ministry of Labor to convert whole sectors like cosmetics, lingerie, and accessories to a female labor force. Saudi women had stopped going to these shops and resorted to buying online due to the cultural discomfort of buying such personal products from a male. Opening up these sectors is estimated to provide 400,000 jobs in the next three years to be filled by Saudi women only. In other sectors where men and women could work side by side but have not, Khalid works directly with companies, such as one large hotel, encouraging them to employ women in the food and beverage and tourism sectors. These changes have had the added benefit of significantly government spending on unemployment benefits.
While continuing to build strategic partnerships, Khalid has worked diligently with the Ministry of Labor, the Human Resource Development Fund, and a number of relevant citizen organizations. Additionally, Khalid is in a position to promote fair women’s employment policies with his recent appointment to the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Labor. Currently, he is the voice within the committee pushing to change policies that require small-and medium-sized enterprises to have separate entrances for women, to have equal salary regulations for women, and to require private companies who have more than fifty female employees to build an office daycare facility.
While employing more women and gradually changing gender roles, Khalid is taking incremental steps to promote policy changes to reach his goal to end the segregation of men and women in many facets of life, starting with the workplace. Khalid is making positive strides in a community aching for change and a government willing to advance in the area of women’s rights due to international pressure and the threat of neighboring uprisings.
Khalid is building on the momentum by penetrating new markets. He plans to increase the number of staff and extend the platform’s services throughout the country. For regional expansion, he will call on experts in those markets to help him gain access to country specific information and navigate its varying dynamics. Khalid has made initial steps toward replicating his fully operational framework in Qatar, Yemen, Oman, and Libya. He has gained recognition from regional and international organizations like Wamda, Arabnet, the ILO, and UNICEF.
As a child, Khalid had an early introduction to a borderless, cosmopolitan world. Khalid was born in Baghdad, Iraq to a Saudi father and mother of Iraqi origin but was raised and educated between Canada and the UK. It was there he developed his belief that people should have equal and diversified opportunities. Despite coming from a family of doctors, Khalid opted for an education in business because he knew it would open new venues for him. He graduated from Saint Mary’s University in Canada in 2007.
Khalid felt that he had important work to do in the Gulf and so returned to his roots, leaving behind family in Canada. Initially, Khalid struggled to find a career opportunity that suited him, due in part to a lack of information on available jobs and an existing trend in which entry level positions are often allocated to expatriates. He soon joined KPMG as a marketing supervisor and within three years he became their Country Marketing & Communications Manager. Khalid excelled in his career, showing a passion for integrating a social dimension into the world of business. He led KPMG to over 25 key awards in the fields of Corporate Social Responsibility and Working Environment, including Best Saudi Company to work for four consecutive years and the King Khalid Award for Responsible Competitiveness for two years in a row.
Khalid became more keenly aware of existing difficulties in the local job market when his sister returned from Canada to find a job and was not able to do so, due to cultural and structural barriers. His sister’s struggle became a catalyst for his movement to help women penetrate the Saudi job market and to promote diversity and equality. He therefore founded Glowork as a replicable model for women’s job creation. He is currently working on expansion while building strong partnerships.