After traveling to 86 countries, Saudi Arabia has always been on my bucket list – primarily because I wanted to learn more about its culture and history. So, when I received an invitation to speak at Glowork’s #AStepAhead conference – Saudi Arabia’s biggest, all-female career fair founded by CEO Khalid Alkhudair – I was thrilled! Heading to Saudi to speak to young women about career development? Challenge accepted!
In addition to meeting incredibly inspiring and talented young Saudis and receiving a speaker’s award, here’s what I learned during my five day stay in Saudi Arabia:
1) Young women are motivated to work
Many of the conference participants (24,000 on the first day alone!), approached me to share their talents, plans and goals. These young women – 300 of them selected to be a part of the conference based on their academic achievements – are prepared to work hard. Despite the pre-existing challenges for women to work in Saudi Arabia, their aspirations are clear and they are determined to build bright futures. The amount of women with a bachelor degree has increased from roughly 3,879 in 2004/2005 to approximately 35,700 in 2011/ 2012. However, not enough women have access to education, while many young people (some of whom I met) are working to change this.
2) Twitter is where its at
Going in, I knew young people in Saudi were active on Twitter, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the social network shapes their day-to-day. Young people in Saudi are amongst the highest Twitter users globally and when I asked them why they choose this social network, they didn’t hesitate: “It’s because we can express ourselves on Twitter – it’s a place for us to be free.” They told me they use Twitter to share thoughts on government and society. That being said, most young women choose to use an avatar as their profile picture to maintain a form of privacy.
3) Times are changing
Saudi Arabia is known internationally for its restrictive human rights laws – particularly related to its restrictions on women. These include a ban on women driving, the fact that women need a male guardian to accompany them at all times and require approval from their male guardian to receive certain medical treatments (HRW 2015 World Report). On the flip side, some women I spoke to had successfully studied abroad, were pursuing careers and were (trying to) delay marriage (not always easy depending on family circumstances). Women – in urban areas – are receiving access to the public and political space: female gyms are opening around the country (check out the first female fitness initiative founded by Gloworks), women will be able to vote this year for the first time ever and more and more young women are graduating from university.
Despite obvious differences, it is interesting to see how many aspects of life in Saudi overlap with life in the other countries I have been to: at the end of the day, the youth is working to change their future, while those a generation or two older are trying to keep up with the pace.