Reem Alattas, Director of Value Advisory at SAP and DataNaut at NASA; Christina Ioannidis, CEO and Founder of Aquitude and Top of Her Game; and Ricarda Ruecker, Chief Talent Officer at MCN, come together to share insights on the female workforce in creative and innovation-led industries in the Kingdom. They discuss potential initiatives that can encourage more women to enter and thrive in these fields, fostering their growth and contribution to KSA.
What’s the state of the female workforce in creative and innovation-led industries in KSA?
Reem Alattas: The participation rate of Saudi women in the labor force, including those who had a job or were actively looking, increased from 20 percent in late 2018 to 33 percent by the end of 2020, according to the General Authority for Statistics. This means that the share of Saudi women in the labor market grew by 65 percent in just two years. In doing so, one of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 — to increase the participation rate of women in the workforce to more than 30 percent — was achieved 10 years ahead of time. The state of the female workforce in KSA is on fire! Saudi women are blazing trails, break- ing barriers, and leaving their mark in different industries like never before. They’re bringing their A-game, their creativity, and their passion to sectors such as arts, fashion, media, and tech. It’s a revolution, and the world better gets ready because Saudi women are creating waves of inspiration.
Christina Ioannidis: According to the objectives of the National Transformation Program, Saudi women exceeded their economic participation rate in the labor market by 35.6% in the second quarter of 2022. Women play a highly active role in creative and innovation-led industries in Saudi Arabia. They are establishing their own agencies and frameworks to cater to corporations of all sizes. The Ministry of Commerce and the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Mon- shaat) have taken the initiative to promote an entrepreneurial culture. The number of female beneficiaries has reached 2,769,734, resulting in a 45% increase in women-owned enterprises.
Ricarda Ruecker: In Saudi Arabia, women are making significant contributions across various sectors, driving the country’s economic growth. At MCN, we take great pride in witnessing the increasing number of Saudi women joining our creative, media, and PR agencies. They bring immense value to the world of media and marketing, showcasing their expertise in strategy, storytelling, creative thinking, art direction, and design. Their deep understanding of the cultural nuances and societal needs of the country enables them to connect with customers on a profound level, forging meaningful relationships with both clients and consumers. Their presence enhances our ability to deliver impactful campaigns that resonate with audiences. To further empower Saudi talent to join the creative industry, we need to improve communication about the roles and career opportunities in our field.
What role did the government’s Saudization play in driving change?
R.A: The government’s Saudization plan has been a game-changer, a real catalyst for driving change and empowering women. This plan was all about increasing the participation of Saudi nationals in the workforce. And guess what? Women were front and center in this incredible transformation. The plan provided a supportive framework and a solid foundation for women to showcase their talents, skills, and creativity. Through initiatives such as Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, the government put women’s empowerment at the forefront and recognized their immense potential to drive economic growth and innovation.
Saudization focused on industries such as media, entertainment, and tech which have traditionally been male-dominated. By prioritizing the participation of Saudi women in these sectors, the government sent a clear message that their contributions and talents are valued and essential for the nation’s progress.
Saudization created a supportive ecosystem for women to thrive. It provided access to fund- ing, training programs, and resources necessary to develop their skills and pursue their creative passions. The government established incubators, accelerators, and creative hubs that fostered collaboration, mentorship, and networking opportunities, further nurturing the growth of Saudi women in creativity.
But let’s not forget the impact on mindset and perception. The government’s commitment to Saudization sparked a cultural shift, challenging traditional norms and empowering women to step into the limelight. It encouraged society to recognize and appreciate the contributions of women in creative fields, thereby breaking down barriers and paving the way for a more inclusive and diverse Saudi Arabia.
Get ready, world, because Saudi women are unleashing their creative power, and it’s a force to be reckoned with!
C.I: I believe that the Kingdom’s initiative to promote female Saudization has played a crucial role in driving growth, aligning with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan. The impressive figures reflecting the growth of women’s economic and labour force participation would not have been possible without the dedicated efforts of the government. The Saudization policies, which encompass capacity building through training and development programs, as well as scholarships, have served as a significant catalyst in supporting women’s advancement into leadership positions, whether in government, private enterprises, or entrepreneurship.
R.R: It is imperative for the government to prioritize education and career awareness within our industry, beginning from early school years and extending to university-level education. To facilitate this, we at MCN, actively collaborate with universities, offering workshops, mentorship programs, and internships that aim to inspire both women and men to embark on an exciting journey in the field of advertising.
By fostering early exposure and engagement, we strive to ignite passion and enthusiasm among the younger generation, encouraging them to pursue careers in advertising. Ultimately, our collaborative efforts with universities aim to shape a future workforce that is diverse, skilled, and prepared to excel in the dynamic realm of advertising.
How are women themselves driving this transformation and how are men supporting them?
R.A: Saudi women have become true trailblazers. We are stepping into the spotlight, defying stereotypes, and showcasing our immense creativity across various fields. From art and fashion to film and music, Saudi women are leaving an indelible mark on the creative landscape. Through our talents and dedication, they are rewriting the narrative, challenging societal norms, and inspiring a generation of aspiring artists and innovators. But let’s not forget the incredible support system that plays a crucial role in this journey. Men in Saudi Arabia are stepping up and standing alongside women, recognizing the importance of women's empowerment and the transformative power of creativity. They are embracing their roles as allies, mentors, and advocates. By champion- ing women’s voices and achievements, men are reshaping societal perceptions and fostering an environment where women can thrive.
Men in Saudi Arabia are not just supporting from the sidelines; they are actively participating in initiatives that promote women’s empowerment in creativity. They are encouraging girls to pursue their passions, providing them with the tools and resources they need to excel in their chosen fields. Men are reshaping the narrative within their own communities, challenging traditional mindsets, and promoting the importance of gender diversity and inclusivity. It is through this partnership between women and men that we witness the true power of transformation. By working hand in hand, we are breaking down barriers, eradicating gender biases, and creating opportunities for all. This collaborative effort is not just limited to the creative sphere; it permeates every aspect of Saudi society, be it education, entrepreneurship, or leadership roles.
C.I: Saudi women are leading the charge for change. A survey conducted by the Saudi Education Ministry on social media revealed that 80 percent of Saudi girls express interest in studying STEM fields. Furthermore, 60 percent of science graduates in the Kingdom are women. Formal programs, like those at the Apple Development Centre at Princess Nura University, and independent Saudi women establishing their own digital enterprises, demonstrate that young women are taking control of their own destinies. These empowered individuals are comfortable with technology, motivated, and eager to learn, playing a vital role in driving social and economic transformation.
Moreover, platforms such as Top of Her Game challenge stereotypes and broaden the realm of possibilities for women in the Kingdom. By doing so, they contribute to a positive cycle of ambition, determination, and economic empowerment.
R.R: Undoubtedly, women play a pivotal role in our industry, and we are committed to fostering positive change by attending and speaking at impactful events such as Communicate’s Women to Watch Conference. These initiatives, coupled with robust governance and policies within companies, aim to ensure equity and equal representation of women. At MCN, the male leadership in the Kingdom is excellent in supporting the development of women in their agencies. We are dedicated to empowering women through various training and development programs. We believe in nurturing their careers and propelling them into leadership positions, both within our agency and in collaboration with our esteemed clients. However, the key criteria for promotions and growth remain meritocracy. Women want to earn their careers and not be given a promotion as a quota. It is our responsibility to pave the way for enabling development opportunities. Furthermore, we actively prepare them for their desired roles in marketing and communications in government or other private sector companies, recognizing the importance of their continued growth and success even beyond their time with us.
How can organizations avoid the temptation of parachuting women just to tick a box, instead of appointing them on the basis of competence/ merit?
R.A: It is crucial to avoid the temptation of parachuting women into positions without considering their qualifications or experience, as this can undermine both their credibility and the progress toward true gender equality in the industry. First and foremost, it is essential to create a level playing field for women. This starts with addressing the underlying systemic barriers that hinder their progress. By promoting gender equality in education, ensuring fair hiring practices, and providing equal opportunities for professional development, we can cultivate a diverse talent pool where women have an equal chance to compete based on their skills and capabilities. To avoid the perception of tokenism, it is essential to have a clear and transparent process for evaluating candidates. Companies should establish robust recruitment and promotion practices that focus on objective criteria and measurable outcomes. This may involve structured interviews, skills assessments, and performance evaluations that are free from bias and based on demonstrated abilities. Moreover, it is crucial to invest in mentorship and sponsorship programs that support the growth and advancement of women in tech. By pairing women with experienced mentors who can provide guidance, support, and opportunities for career development, we can help them build the skills and confidence needed to excel in their roles. Sponsors, on the other hand, can advocate for women’s visibility and advancement within the organization. Additionally, companies should foster a culture of inclusion and diversity that values and respects the contributions of all employees. This includes addressing unconscious biases promoting collaboration and teamwork, and ensuring that diverse voices are heard and valued in decision-making processes. By creating an environment where women can thrive based on their abilities and ideas, we can eliminate the need for tokenistic appointments.
C.I: I must take a contrarian stance on this issue. Women have faced quotas working against them for a considerable period of time. No one has contested the existence of a 100% all-male quota in the past. So, why should the introduction of a 30% or 40% quota for women be seen as anything different? Men were never questioned about their competence or merit in any domain. It is important not to establish new rules solely for women, as quotas have always existed. It ultimately comes down to the perception of which gender is being favored.
R.R: I believe the perception has evolved. Both the Kingdom and the wider GCC region recognize and appreciate the significant positive impact women have in the workforce and their invaluable contributions to the economy. However, it is essential to implement policies that go beyond mere quotas and ensure a genuine commitment to gender equity. While it is encouraging to witness the progress made, it is crucial to establish a framework that promotes equal opportunities based on merit and capabilities rather than simply fulfilling numerical targets. By fostering a culture of inclusion, diversity, and fair practices, we can create an environment where women are empowered to thrive and succeed in their chosen fields.
By doing so, we can ensure that women have equal access to growth opportunities, are recognized for their achievements, and are able to contribute fully to their organizations and the economy as a whole.
What challenges are Saudi women still facing in our industry and how to address them?
R.A: Look, we’ve come a long way, but we aren’t done yet. Saudi women still face barriers like unequal opportunities, societal expectations, and limited representation. We need to address these challenges by promoting awareness, and education, and breaking down those old-fashioned stereotypes. It’s time to uplift, empower, and create a culture of inclusion. Together, we can overcome these hurdles and unleash the full potential of Saudi women in creativity.
C.I: All professionals should be considered for stretch assignments irrespective of gender – so if the ability is there, then the competence can be developed through experience. What works against women, however, is the perception that she is not ‘ready’ or that, if she has a family, she will not be committed. It is these perceptions that often hamper women’s growth in all industries, including the creative industries. It is important to address these perceptions head-on – for example in 360-degree reviews, are the capabilities of both genders addressed equally? Or are we using a different brush to taint one gender over the other, such as in the examples above?
R.R: Retaining women in our industry can pose challenges, as they often consider alternative career paths beyond media and marketing. To address this, we must focus on cultivating strong role models, establishing robust support systems, and finding effective ways to inspire and motivate women toward long-term careers in the creative sphere.
What success stories best illustrate the drive towards women empowerment in our industry in KSA?
R.A: Every woman who succeeds in a role that was previously occupied by men is a success story. Whether it’s a woman breaking barriers as an engineer, a scientist, a CEO, or any other traditionally male-dominated field, their achievements are shining examples of empowerment. These women are trailblazers, paving the way for future generations and inspiring others to dream big. Their success stories show us that gender should never limit our aspirations or potential. So, let’s celebrate and uplift every woman who defies stereotypes, and makes a lasting impact in their respective industries. They are the true champions of women’s empowerment, and their stories light the way for a brighter, more inclusive future.
C.I: I work with Jazz Creative Agency, a local partner founded by Yasmeen Al-Maimani. Proudly, she holds the distinction of being the first woman from Saudi Arabia to become a commercial airline pilot. Observing the opportunities presented by the pandemic’s impact on inbound tourism, Yasmeen founded JCA with the vision of contributing to her country’s development. Alongside her team, she offers unique entertainment services and aims to elevate the standard of corporate events in the Kingdom. I believe that Captain Yasmeen’s remarkable achievements as both a pilot and an agency founder serve as an inspiring model of success for women in Saudi Arabia.
R.R: We have multiple great success stories of women going on to achieve fantastic accolades in our industry. A recent standout example is the collaboration between UM and our esteemed KSA client, stc, which resulted in the agency being honored with the prestigious title of ‘Media Agency of the Year’ at the MMA Smarties MENA awards. Furthermore, stc itself was recognized as the ‘Advertiser of the Year’. These achievements were made possible by the significant contributions of our talented female professionals who played a pivotal role in securing over 19 awards, ranging from gold to bronze. Moreover, we are witnessing a positive trend of more women being promoted and elevated to senior roles within our agencies. This upward trajectory exemplifies the industry’s growing recognition of the immense value and expertise that women bring to the table.