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A Post-it note discreetly passed by a student to lecturer Julie Hodges as she spoke to a group of Saudi women gave her food for thought. “Driving is a political issue,” the note warned.
Ms Hodges, MBA programmes director at Durham University Business School, was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, delivering an executive programme on leadership and management for professional women. The Post-it note, politely warning her off an issue that is a hot topic for her audience, was symptomatic of the contradictions that have characterised her work delivering courses for Saudi Arabian women.
With its great oil-related wealth, Saudi Arabia is a promising potential market for western academic institutions that have an international reach. However, it is also a market with particular challenges because of the strict segregation from men that women face outside the home.
The tender that Durham won from the British Council was to develop and deliver a course for professional women who wish to progress in their careers and improve their leadership and management skills. It reflects aspirations enshrined in the Saudi National Development Plan for 2014, produced by the government headed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, which include promoting women’s participation in economic activity, enhancing their status and influence in family and society and providing the necessary facilities to do so.
However, while Saudi women are now developing professional careers as doctors, teachers and business people, they are not allowed to leave home unaccompanied, drive or be in contact with unrelated men. They must also seek permission from their male guardian – generally husband, father or brother – for decisions covering most aspects of their lives, and be fully covered when outside.
The teaching on the three day course took place in a kind of bubble. One young woman, for example, spoke of getting into parliament but was among the most vocal objectors to the suggestion of a photograph being taken of the class. Only her husband, she insisted, should see her face.
Given such constraints, Ms Hodges did not expect the course to result in dramatic, immediate change for its participants.
“It’s fascinating; on the one hand you have these women talking about leadership, who are enthusiastic, who seemed to want change,” she says. Yet outside the classroom, they revert to cultural norms. “As soon as they get home, they are subservient,” says Ms Hodges, “[and] being outcast from family is the worst thing that could happen to a woman. “
These restrictions are something Ms Hodges and fellow tutor Lindsey Agness have experienced first-hand. Obliged in Riyadh to get into a taxi to cross the street from their hotel to a shopping mall opposite, they had to wear abaya clothing and sit in a secluded women-only area if venturing into a branch of Starbucks for a coffee. The hotel gym and swimming pool were also out of bounds.
Yet there is hope that within the context of a working environment alongside other women, the participants can apply what they have learnt on the course and make some changes.
“I’m sure in some small way we have had an impact on these women’s lives,” says Ms Hodges.
Evidence includes an email from one participant to tell her that the programme she attended had given her the confidence to successfully apply for a more senior job in healthcare.
The three-day course, which includes a scheduled prayer session during the lunchbreak, has been delivered twice so far in Riyadh. The first venue was the biggest female academic institution in the world. The second venue was the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce. The course has also been delivered in Oman.
More than 60 women in total have participated. Half were Saudi, with others from Yemen and Jordan. Participants, who paid to attend, included entrepreneurs specialising in personal development training, fashion and graphic design.
As with similar courses worldwide, subject areas on the course include challenges affecting women and how to overcome them; personal leadership vision and styles; coaching and team development.
Ms Hodges was amazed by the level of engagement in the classroom. Some subject areas, such as leadership, the women were knowledgeable about; others, such as neuro-linguistic programming, were new to them. Discussion of subjects such as posture and how it might boost confidence were unfamiliar to wearers of the all-enveloping abaya and topics such as exploring and managing conflict and collaboration were revealing of the social backdrop. “They had been used to being told, and just telling people, what to do,” says Ms Hodges.
Durham has several links with Saudi Arabia. The university is collaborating with Qassim University to help female teaching assistants progress to masters and PhD qualifications, and in August the business school hosted a study week for executive MBA students from King Abdulaziz University.
The executive programme is to be run again in January 2015. The location has yet to be decided as a result of political unrest in the Middle East, but the objective will be that the women attending can themselves deliver future programmes.
“It’s not going to be transformational but things are bubbling under the surface,” says Ms Hodges.
Behind the scenes: Brunel gives post-graduate opportunity in Bahrain
Brunel University’s PhD Without Residence has opened up UK postgraduate study for women in the Middle East. Run in Bahrain in partnership with the local Ahlia University, the full-time, three-year course replicates Brunel’s UK-based equivalent under the strict guidance of Professor Zahir Irani, head of Brunel Business School.
“I have to make sure we don’t have a second-class PhD programme – there’s only one standard,” he insists.
The one crucial difference is that PhD Without Residence students need visit Brunel only once, to attend their viva. This has made the programme, which began in 2007, highly attractive to female students from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Of 30 graduates so far, 10 were women – including the first, Farzana al-Maraghi, director of scientific research at the secretariat-general of the Higher Education Council in Bahrain. Of approximately 40 students currently on the programme, half are female. Participants, or sponsoring employers, pay about £13,000 per annum, in line with Brunel’s UK rates.
Strong take-up among women is one of several factors that have delighted Prof Irani.
“I was very keen to help create a knowledge environment in the Gulf region so students would deal with regional challenges,” he says. Subjects tackled have included the lack of democracy in Bahrain. Research areas include business, mathematics and computer science.
For Ahlia, a well-established private university, the partnership with Brunel has provided cachet.
“That gives them a competitive edge to attract research staff from all over the world,” says Prof Irani.