A recent study conducted by Booz & Company has found that 78.3 percent of female university graduates are unemployed with more than 1,000 of these women holding a doctorate degree.
The report blamed the national education system for failing to prepare Saudi women for competitive roles in the labor force, which resulted in largely limiting them to traditional fields such as teaching and service businesses.
As a result, Saudi women are seeking employment outside the kingdom. As many as 300 Saudi graduates having already accepted teaching positions in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, the report said.
"From my perspective, some of the responsibility is on higher education for not providing a means for following up with graduates,” said Tahira Hoke, director of the Academic Assessment and Planning Center at Prince Sultan University's College for Women in Riyadh. “I believe that it is very important for all universities and colleges to have a career development center that can have a strong inter-community role in linking graduates and employers."
Hoke added that such a center ensures that graduates will be future leaders and employers themselves and expand opportunities for other Saudi women. "I always emphasize to my graduates that they should be proud of their field and not merely look for a job because they may very well be the first group of Saudi women to work in a specific specialty in the Kingdom," Hoke said.
In addition to graduate's need of community-driven educational cooperation programs, some academics have said that the high unemployment rate can also be attributed to grade point averages.
"Most employers who have spoken to us regarding hiring graduates usually look for the brightest talent, which means the students having maintained the highest grades throughout their academic career are usually first among graduates to be employed," said Saleha Abedin, vice dean institutional advancement at Dar Al-Hekma College. She added that lower grades could be a contributor to a graduate remaining unemployed.
Nonetheless, some women complain the responsibility for joblessness being faced by Saudi women is widely due to social issues. “The unemployment problem is basically among women … (and) is mainly due to social customs … the Labor Ministry alone will not be able to solve the unemployment problem … it requires joint efforts of families, schools, individuals and social institutions," Abdul Wahid Al-Humoud, deputy minister of Labor said in the report.
Saudi female graduates in scientific and other fields have said they have remained unemployed while most of the jobs in these fields go to their male counterparts mainly due to social stigma.
"Most jobs are awarded to male applicants first because of the social belief that men are more socially entitled to a job since they must bear the cost of getting married and supporting a family,” said Rania Ibrahim, a Saudi graduate in English Language Studies from King Abdul-Aziz University (KAAU). “However, women too have the right to work and play an active role in society, but are rarely given a chance."
She added that when open-minded, supportive parents allow their daughter to marry a less-than-supportive husband after graduation it also leads to women's unemployment. "I know many friends who have graduated and then gotten married only to be told by their new husband that he forbids her from working and that she should stay home, have children and take care of marital duties," Ibrahim said. Some Saudi graduates think that it is neither a social nor labor market issue that is to blame, but a mixture of both.
"The Labor Ministry usually stresses that socially, women should choose jobs that are related to their feminine character,” said Rawan Ahmed, a recent graduate in Chemical Engineering from King Abdul-Aziz University. “However, in my view this should be broadened to allow women to work in any field as long as they uphold Islamic principles.”
Ahmed said that most jobs such as the field she has chosen are reserved typically for men but added that these social barriers must be broken down. "Upon graduating last month, I have applied to participate in an internship with Saudi Aramco and hopefully will be employed with them in the near future," she said.