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Businesswoman Lubna Olayan On How She Shattered The Stereotype Of Saudi Women

Apr 30, 2018
Originally published on April 30, 2018 9:27 pm
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The last few months have seen enormous change for women in Saudi Arabia. They'll soon be allowed to drive and are being encouraged to enter the workforce.

For decades, Saudi women have been widely viewed by the outside world as cloistered and subjugated, but there are exceptions. NPR's Jackie Northam spoke to one female executive who's shattered the stereotypical view of Saudi women and is helping others to do the same.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Lubna Olayan remembers the date. It was April 15, 1983, when she and her father sat down to dinner in Riyadh. Olayan and her American husband had just returned to her native Saudi Arabia after several years in the U.S.

LUBNA OLAYAN: Over dinner, he says, Lubna, so what are you going to be doing here?

NORTHAM: Olayan had worked for JPMorgan in New York and wasn't sure what she would do in Saudi Arabia, but her father had something in mind.

OLAYAN: He just looked at me, and he said, my executive assistant just submitted his resignation. Why don't you start tomorrow morning?

NORTHAM: Thirty-five years on, Olayan heads up Saudi and Middle East operations for the Olayan Group, a private international investment group with companies involved with everything from hospital supplies to lightweight manufacturing.

OLAYAN: Last year, we celebrated our 70th anniversary as a company here.

NORTHAM: The 62-year-old Olayan rarely gives interviews. The day we met in her bright office in Riyadh, she was wearing a light cream-colored sweater and a stylish Italian necklace - no veil on her head. Olayan is soft-spoken but exudes strength. She's a regular speaker at Davos Economic Forum and is considered to be one of the most influential women in business.

All this from a country where women have had few liberties, and there's segregation between the sexes. For her first 18 years, Olayan was the only woman at the company.

OLAYAN: Well, I'll tell you the toughest thing about being a woman here was there was no ladies' room. So when I would travel to go visit many of our factories, absolutely with no woman in any of the factories, no woman in the boardroom, so there is no need for facilities.

NORTHAM: Olayan said she felt pressure to prove she wasn't given the job just because she was the boss's daughter. But even as she rose to the top, the lack of women in the workforce continued to nag at Olayan. She couldn't understand why men and woman could work together in Saudi hospitals but not in offices, factories or elsewhere.

OLAYAN: But at that time, laws were not very much in favor for us to allow women working in a mixed environment. And I just thought, you know, how is our society going to progress if 50 percent of the population is not allowed to contribute?

NORTHAM: Olayan wanted to change that, and slowly started reaching out to colleagues and senior members of government looking for support. She says they encouraged her because they had wives and daughters who wanted to work, but they also warned her to respect the kingdom's rigid customs and avoid confrontation.

OLAYAN: You negotiate. You deal. You do this. You take and give. The ultimate goal was to have women working and not have the fight.

NORTHAM: Finally, in 2001, Olayan took a stand and hired a woman whose sole mission was to increase the number of female employees. Soon, 40 women were hired to work in one of the factories making disposable medical gowns.

From there, they started building the ranks of women in the offices - some segregated, some mixed. It was all kept quiet and low-key so as not to attract attention.

OLAYAN: When we started hiring women, you needed the male guardian's approval for the woman to work and all of this. Nowadays, she doesn't need anyone's approval to work. The change from when we started to where we are now is tremendous.

NORTHAM: Still, there are only about 500 women at Olayan's company, just a fraction of its 16,000 employees. Olayan admits she still has a lot to do to include more women into her workforce, especially in senior positions. But now she has help. There's a huge push by the Saudi government to get women to work. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Riyadh.

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