Princess Ameerah, who is married to high profile Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, said it was difficult to change the mindset of people within Saudi Arabia, which has one of the worst levels of female participation in society in the world.
“The most daunting challenge is not only the legislation but it is the concept, the mentality [of Saudis] because we know our society is very conservative and is very private and it’s very difficult to change concepts in Saudi Arabia to support women in the work place or to have a larger contribution [in society],” Princess Ameerah said.
“Many conservative men say ‘we don’t want women to work, we want her to maintain her dignity’. That’s not true [that] she’s not maintaining her dignity while working.
While a member of the audience during a separate WEF session on the Arab employment crisis, Princess Ameerah challenged Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) CEO Mohammed Al Mady to explain why his company had not “opened the door” to Saudi women.
Al Mady defended the company by saying it had employed 50 women, but the audience laughed when it was revealed SABIC had 20,000 employees.
“We have been slow for sure,” Al Mady conceded.
“That was not really by design that we want to be against women or anything, but we want to get the best practice done in Saudi Arabia because there are many mistakes that have happened and it really gives bad names for the employees and the employers.
“Now we’re in a position to get the best practices and do it in our company and you will see a big change.”
The government has announced several programs to help women enter the workforce for the first time in recent years and last year more than 160,000 Saudi women were employed – a record.
However, Princess Ameerah said 85 percent of those unemployed were female.
She said many women were unaware of the wide opportunities available to them. A significant percentage of female graduates who intended to enter the workforce wanted to be in the education sector, while only a handful sought careers in information technology and the finance sector.
“There is a concept that men should work and be the breadwinners and women should stay at home and care for the children. If you want to demand real equality then women must contribute to build the society equally with men, if they want real equality just like the societies in the West.
“So women should not only care for their homes and their children but they should also contribute to their societies and their countries. This is important for us; such concepts should change.”
Princess Ameerah said even she had been criticised for her role in society by people she was close to and worked with.
She said there needed to be more Arab women’s networks where they could support each other.
“If you don’t have a circle of people who are living through this with you, if you do not believe in what you are doing you will not make it, you will not continue working and you will not continuing facing those criticisms,” she said.
“Unfortunately we don’t celebrate great success stories in the region. We have amazing women who have accomplished many things in the public sector [and] in the private sector … [and] those are the role models for women talking about breaking the glass ceiling.
“As far as I’m concerned not every woman should work but every woman who wants to work should be able to work.”