Saudi Women Still Can't Drive, But They Are Making It To Work

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Saudi women, shown here at a cultural festival near the capital Riyadh on Sunday, still need the permission of male relatives to travel and even receive certain medical procedures, but a growing number are entering the workforce. (AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi women, shown here at a cultural festival near the capital Riyadh on Sunday, still need the permission of male relatives to travel and even receive certain medical procedures, but a growing number are entering the workforce. (AFP/Getty Images)

The sign on the door to the office of eTree, an online advertising agency in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, reads: "Girls Only."

The company's founder, Esra Assery, admits it's a little sexist, and we both laugh at the joke in male-dominated Saudi Arabia — the only country that prohibits women from driving a car.

Getting a job isn't easy either, with the country's conservative traditions and gender segregation, but Saudi women are entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before.

Nowhere is that more striking than at companies like eTree, which Assery, 30, founded in 2011.

The open workspace looks a lot like a college dorm: desk clutter, potted plants, family pictures and a snack table with chips and chocolate.

Esra Assery, 30, founded eTree, an online advertising agency in Riyadh, in 2011. The all-female company has a staff of more than 30 and Assery has plans to expand. Saudi women must be fully covered in public, but in an all-female office, they are not required to have a headscarf or an abaya, the robe-like dress.
Esra Assery, 30, founded eTree, an online advertising agency in Riyadh, in 2011. The all-female company has a staff of more than 30 and Assery has plans to expand. Saudi women must be fully covered in public, but in an all-female office, they are not required to have a headscarf or an abaya, the robe-like dress.

Assery says she recruits women exclusively because they are more motivated than Saudi men.

In this deeply conservative country, a woman needs permission from a male guardian to travel, for education, even for some medical procedures. But when it comes to business, men and women are equal under the law, Assery says.

She has built a $15-million business based on understanding social media, which is huge here — 8 million Facebook users, 3 million on Twitter — and growing fast.

"[Twitter] is where people discuss their thoughts, people spend time hanging out. It gives you an indication of the trends that are happening," Assery says. "Everything that is happening in Saudi is there on Twitter."

Her clients want to reach that social media audience. They want to build their brands online, and that's the business Assery has tapped into.

Rasha Abu Samra works in the office of eTree, an online advertising firm. Women outpace men when it comes to advanced degrees in Saudi Arabia, but the rate of unemployment among women is much higher than for men.
Rasha Abu Samra works in the office of eTree, an online advertising firm. Women outpace men when it comes to advanced degrees in Saudi Arabia, but the rate of unemployment among women is much higher than for men.

"I wanted to do it because no one else was doing it. There was a huge demand in the market for that," she says. "And then, of course, to start and create jobs for locals. It's 100 percent Saudi, 100 percent run by Saudi females. So, it's a commitment to create jobs for Saudi females."

It's a commitment the government backs. The policy is called Saudization, and it aims to replace the huge number of foreign workers. The government has set quotas, and private businesses are required to hire more Saudis.

Still, unemployment among Saudi women is five times higher than for men.

That makes eTree unique — the first Internet startup company with an all-female staff. Jihad al-Ammar, an investment manager, advises Mobily, a large telecom company, on startups. He has worked with Assery and her eTree staff.

"They definitely seem to have their own vibe, their own voice, and they are excellent," he says.

That excellence may have something to do with another startling statistic: Saudi women are the majority of college graduates, and they hold more advanced degrees than men.

But there are still limited opportunities for women. Internet startups alone won't fill the gap, Ammar says.

That doesn't stop the all-female team at eTree, which is moving to a bigger office soon. Assery says she will hire more women and add to the three dozen already on staff. She has installed a massage chair in the office to reduce the work stress.

Companies like eTree are one sign that the workplace is expanding for women.

A newspaper headline this week is another: Some women are forced to share their earnings with their husband. The issue is now part of the national conversation. In this traditional society, men manage all the household expenses. But now, Saudi women say a working wife should be able to spend what she earns.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Saudi Arabia is still the only country that prohibits women from driving. Getting a job isn't easy either, and for many women, getting to the office is more important than getting behind the wheel. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from the Saudi capital Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Saudi women are entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. One striking example is here at eTree, a successful online advertising agency. Thirty-year-old Esra Assery founded the company in 2011.

The sign on the door says girls only.

ESRA ASSERY: Yeah. This is very sexist, I know (laughter).

AMOS: The open workspace looks a lot like a college dorm - desk clutter and potted plants, family pictures and a snack table with chips and chocolate. Assery introduces her staff.

ASSERY: This is Tisneed. She is our digital planner. Lanoon - she's our analyst. Spesama (ph) is a graphic designer.

AMOS: She says she recruits all women because they're more motivated than Saudi men. In this deeply conservative country, a woman needs permission from a male guardian to travel for education, even for some medical procedures. But when it comes to business, men and women are equal under the law, she says. Her success is based on understanding social media, which is huge here - 8 million Facebook users, 3 million on Twitter and growing fast.

ASSERY: OK. Why Twitter? It's where people discuss their thoughts. It's people - where - spend time hanging out. It's - it gives you an indication of the trends that are happening. Everything that is happening outside is there on Twitter

AMOS: Her clients want to reach that social media audience. They want to build their brands online. And that's the business Assery built.

Did you do this because you wanted to make money or you wanted to create jobs or you wanted to prove you could do it?

ASSERY: I wanted to do it because no one else was doing it. There was a huge demand in the market for that, and then, of course, to start and create jobs for locals. It's 100 percent Saudi, 100 percent run by Saudi females. So it's part of a commitment - is to create jobs for Saudi females.

AMOS: It's a commitment the government backs. It's called Saudization, a policy that aims to replace the huge number of foreign workers here. Private businesses are required to hire Saudis. There's even a quota. Now, a female hire also counts according to a policy shift by the minister of labor. It's hailed for as a boost for women. But still, female unemployment is five times higher than men. And that makes eTree unique - the first all-female staff in an Internet startup company. Jihad Al Ammar is an investment manager. He advises a large telecom company on startups. He's worked with Assery and her eTree staff.

JIHAD AL AMMAR: So, yeah, I mean, they definitely seem to have their own vibe, their own voice. And they're - you know, they're excellent.

AMOS: Excellence may be due to another startling statistic. Saudi women are the majority of college graduates, and they hold more advanced degrees than men. But there are still not enough opportunities. Even Internet startups won't fill the gaps, says Al Ammar.

AL AMMAR: There are definitely more startup companies right now hiring a lot more people than there were five years ago. But it's still not like a national movement.

AMOS: It doesn't stop the all-female team at eTree. Esra Assery has built a $15 million business. She's soon moving to a bigger office. She says she'll hire more women and add to the three dozen already on staff. She's installed a massage chair in the office to reduce the work stress.

ASSERY: We take a break every now and then.

AMOS: This is one sign that the workplace is expanding for Saudi women, and here's another. A newspaper headline this week - some women are forced to share their earnings with their husbands. It's now part of the national conversation. In this traditional society, men manage all the household expenses, but now Saudi women say a working wife should be able to spend whatever she earns. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.