Speech: “Empowering Women in the changing world of work in Saudi Arabia and worldwide”—Joelle Tanguy

Keynote address by Joelle Tanguy, UN Women Director, Division of Strategic Partnerships, at the opening of the AlWaleed Philanthropies Conference on “The Evolving Role of Women in Saudi Arabia” in Riyad.


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Your Highness, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: As-salamu alaykum

It is an honour and a pleasure to join you at the AlWaleed Philanthropies Conference, and to reflect with you on the evolving role of women in the world and Saudi women in Saudi Arabia.

I am most grateful to Her Royal Highness Princess Lamia bint Majed AlSaud, Secretary General of Alwaleed Philanthropies, for inviting us and convening what I understand to be first conference of its kind in the Kingdom.

It was the will of the member states that UN Women be created six years ago to facilitate concerted action for gender equality and the empowerment of women in the world. Our role involves both very practical action on the ground—in close to 90 countries, including a large programmatic footprint in the Middle East—as well as the convening of annual global consultations, notably the Commission on the Status of Women.

Today, as we speak, member states are gathering in New York for the 61st Commission on the Status of Women. This year’s theme is “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work”. This will be as well the focus of my remarks today.

It is indeed a perfect moment for us to reflect how we can drive the economic empowerment of women. While 20 years ago women’s rights were seen primarily through a human rights lens, the world has now come to understand that the economic empowerment of women is also a factor of success in business as well as a condition to effective development. There is now ample economic evidence that a country’s economic prospects are conditioned by how engaged women are in the workforce, how able they are to engage in the C-Suite and in the boardroom, how women entrepreneurs can thrive, etc. In other words, women empowerment is part of the solution to address our economic challenges. To quote many CEOs—men and women—who, based on the evidence, have pledged to develop parity in their corporation: “it is simply the smart thing to do.”

Member States of the United Nations, including the Kingdom, have clearly adopted this viewpoint when they unanimously adopted, in September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals. The fate of women and girls was placed at the centre of the agenda: not only is one of the 17 goals focusing exclusively on them (Goal 5), but the other 16 goals have key indicators related to women and girls as their full engagement is a condition to successful economic and social development.

Saudi Vision 2030 presented by His Excellency Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, in many ways reflects this assumption when it affirms that the “Saudi economy will provide opportunities for everyone—men and women, young and old—so they may contribute to the best of their abilities”. Stating that Saudi women are a “great asset” and that “over 50 percent of university graduates are female”, Saudi Vision 2030 pledges to “continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy”. This is a very promising agenda.

Your Highness, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In brief, empowering women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors and throughout all levels of economic activity is essential to build strong economies; establish more stable and just societies; improve the quality of life for women, men, families and communities; and improve the performance of business.

So, if women’s economic empowerment is such a compelling factor of success why is it so slow to be delivered? The World Economic Forum suggests that at the current pace it will not be realized globally for another 170 years. And, maybe a better question, what can we do to accelerate the economic empowerment of women?

UN Women and the UN Global compact canvassed business practices from around the globe and, in 2010, presented to the business community guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. This guidance was presented as Women's Empowerment Principles informed by real-life business practices. As well as being a useful guide for business, the Principles seek to inform other stakeholders, including governments, in their engagement with business. There are seven principles, seven imperatives with documented examples of actions.

First, it starts with leadership: it must come from the top and needs to be championed and overseen by the C Suite and the board. It is critical to establish company-wide goals and targets for women empowerment and include progress as a factor in managers’ performance reviews. It also requires empowering the company’s Chief Diversity Officer and lead trainings on unconscious gender bias, even in the board room. It also means we need more women on boards and in senior leadership

In this regard, I was delighted to hear recently that Reem Nashar became the first female CEO of a Saudi Bank, Samba; that Sahar Al-Suhaimi became head of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul); and that Latifa Al-Sabhan became CFO of the Arab National Bank (ANB). These are meaningful signals for the Saudi business community.

I said it all starts with leadership. Indeed. Then, there are basic imperatives for business practice:

Practice “non- discrimination”: that ranges from addressing the gender pay gap (which remains now an average of 23 per cent globally) to making every manager aware of their unconscious bias. (did you know that men are hired for their potential while women are hired for their proven abilities)

Guarantee “health, safety and freedom from violence” including the recognition of the differential needs of female and male employee.

Focus investments on “education, training and professional development for women”, and that must include today encouraging women to enter nontraditional job fields, including STEM. As Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook reminds us, “Women remain dramatically underrepresented in technology fields. They’re missing out on opportunities and the world is missing out on their ideas.” Given the strategic nature of this skill set in the future, no country would want to miss out on the competencies of half of the population. This is a question as well for the education sector and government leaders.

Finally, more and more businesses now engage on new frontiers:

Engendering the supply and value chain is a truly transformative move in support of women entrepreneurship. Businesses and government agencies must ask themselves “how can we encourage women-led small businesses further and empower them to participate in the supply chain?”, “How many women-led businesses do we have in the value chain and what should we do to improve the ratio?”; “what is preventing access to finance for these women entrepreneurs and how can we correct that?” These are questions for large businesses as well for SME authorities, the financial sector, and government.

Reflecting how business communicates will help unpack the ways in which our societal representation of women—or the lack of it—confirms and deepens cultural biases. The power of advertising dwarfs many social initiatives. Does advertising, omnipresent in our lives, say to our little girl that “yes, she can”, that “women can be leaders” that “women can have thriving businesses”, or does it deny her this aspiration? How many women journalists are in the newsroom, or feature as anchorpersons? Does your little girl hear from society that ”she can’t code, that it is a boy’s thing”? I think that revisiting the stereotypes in our advertising is a reflection that no society can avoid: we must ask “how do we create our own limits?”

The seventh and last imperative, the true leveraging factor for all the above, is to:

Measure and publicly report on progress. In other words, as every businessperson knows, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. So, start developing a baseline, set targets, measure progress along these targets, and publish the findings. It may not look rosy at the start, but as the trajectory of our HeforShe Impact Champions indicates, change can happen quickly. I would encourage you to read the PWC Diversity Journey—a great case study—but in brief it took until 2008 for PWC to appoint the first female member of the Global Leadership Team. Eight years later women are 44 per cent of the leadership team.

Your Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Clearly, this means that change to deliver Planet 50-50 can happen quickly in the business sector with leadership at the top, and a commitment to deploy and enhance best practices, to explore new frontiers and to measure and publish. In this context, public policies can be decisive to bring about the enabling environment for women economic empowerment.

Enabling an environment for women to be recruited, retained and promoted in the workplace or as entrepreneurs and business leaders in the supply chain, may also require adopting necessary laws, policies and special measures by governments. It may mean actively regulating and providing incentives to companies and enterprises to become gender equal employers and incubators of female innovation and entrepreneurship. More and more countries even legislate to prohibit the gender pay gap.

Progress must be delivered from both the demand and supply sides of the labour market. From the demand side, education skills and training for women is key to accelerating change. So are measures that facilitate women’s return to work after they have had a family and parental leave policies.

The world of work is being fundamentally altered with globalization, migration, technological disruption and the emergence of the green economy. We must ensure that these forces come as a benefit to women and the working poor in rural and urban areas; and macroeconomic and labour market policies must create decent jobs, protect worker rights, and generate living wages, including for informal and migrant women workers.

Your Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

My last remark will be to highlight that the financial sector (public and private) has a unique role to play. If we take the premise that investing in businesses that have women on the board, in the senior management and in the supply chain, are better performing businesses—a documented fact—then we must revisit the concept of gender-lens investing, and mainstream it as the core strategy to be adopted across the board from individuals to sovereign funds!

The economic power of Saudi women is significant. As early as 2004, when King Adbulaziz University in Jeddah and others started surveying Saudi women economic power, Saudi women owned 40 per cent of private wealth and 20 per cent of Saudi business, including a 34 per cent stake in businesses in Riyad.

The other half of society, men investors, may not be as sensitive to the “gender” concept, but will be interested to find a formula for better performance of their investment portfolios!

All investors ought to ask for the gender data around their investments. How many women on the board of this venture? How many women-led businesses in its supply chain? Because that ought to indicate whether it is a good choice of investment.

And as the market moves in that direction, money will move at last to women entrepreneurs. It will address one of the key hurdles to date for SME development: access to financing by women led businesses.

And as the market moves in that direction, incentives will be clear for companies to accelerate their economic empowerment of women.

Finally, some argue that as more women join businesses, we will uncover more products and services to meet the needs of women. BNY Mellon, a global investment and wealth management firms issued a report in Davos titled Return on Equality. It examines just five sectors (telecommunications, contraception, childcare, water and energy) and demonstrate how, with a gender lens, they would offer investment opportunities in products and services to further the advancement of women with an estimated market impact nearing UDD 300 billion alone in incremental annual opportunity globally by 2025.

What does this mean?

This means that a country’s wealth can be leveraged to rapidly generate the dividends of women economic empowerment. This is an often-untapped strategy, with tremendous potential for acceleration.

And it is on this very word that I wish to end my remarks: “acceleration”

We know that transformative change is not only possible but it would generate tremendous dividends for the economy. McKinsey Global Institute’s 2015 “Power of Parity” report found that advancing women economic parity could add USD 12 trillion to global economy by 2025.

To deliver this we need more than lip service to the concept. Change is hard because it requires, well, change! But to benefit not only women, but all members of society, we need this agenda accelerated. 

Your Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let us together drive acceleration in the work place, acceleration in the supply chain, acceleration in the shaping of our norms and expectations and acceleration of the financing into women-led businesses and business demonstrating diversity.

Are we willing to go home and tell our girls that it will take another 170 years? I doubt that mothers and fathers in the room do want to face that prospect. So, let us work together to deliver Planet 50-50 by 2030. Thank you.