Sara AbdulAziz al-Omran is climbing the corporate ladder in a country where many women used to stay home. She leaves her parents’ home early every morning to head to her job at the All-Women Business Process Services and IT Centre. In just two years, al-Omran has gone from trainee to team leader, with three other women working directly under her. “It’s good to feel independent and achieve something in your career,” al-Omran says.
The young Riyadh native’s team processes corporate invoices and payments at Saudi Arabia’s first business-process outsourcing center, a joint venture of Tata Consultancy Services, GE and Saudi Aramco. With several government agencies among its clients, the two-year-old center is part of the government’s program to expand the Saudi economy from energy into knowledge work. It’s also unique among GE’s five global service centers: Only women work there. It now has nearly 1,000 employees and within two years, the center will have 3,000 women workers.
The center sits at the intersection of demographics and business in Saudi Arabia’s capital. Previously, 80 percent of the country’s workforce was in the public sector; now the government is trying to stimulate private enterprise, and international companies have set up shop.
The women-only facility is part of the National Transformation Initiative of King Salman and his son the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and taps an unused resource, says Dr. Amal Fatani, the Saudi-born pharmacology and toxicology professor who heads the center. “We are utilizing one of the most important treasures we have in this country: our daughters,” says Fatani, a mother of four herself, who worked for decades setting up and running women’s departments at Saudi Arabia’s first university, King Saud University, as well as at the Ministry of Higher Education.
Although the government has embarked on a campaign to integrate women more fully into private enterprises, the workforce participation rate of the kingdom’s women is still comparatively low. Just 13 percent of Saudi workers are female, although women account for 51 percent of university graduates, according to reported Saudi government statistics. (The number is higher in education and healthcare, where women account for around 40 percent of workers.)
Fatani says that Saudi women prefer to work with other women. She say that “it has been a great challenge convincing them to work in the private sector, as it’s mainly a mixed environment.” At the TCS center, everyone — from executives to janitors — is female.
In addition to recruiting candidates, the center also has to convince clients that Saudi women can do the work. That requires changing some incorrect stereotypes, says Deepa Vincent, the Tata manager sent to Saudi Arabia to head human resources for the center. Neither the requirement to wear the abaya nor the restrictions put on women’s participation in society means that women are subservient or less talented in business, she says: “A Saudi woman knows exactly what she wants.”
The initial efforts seem to be working. Clients include businesses in Turkey and North Africa, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the U.S. and India. They include the Saudi government, as well as sponsors Saudi Aramco and GE, which has promised to invest $1 billion in the country.
For college students, the center is a sought-after place to work amid a dearth of options. Al-Omran is driven, studious and bilingual in Arabic and English, but Saudi Arabia is a tough place for a woman to be an accountant.
So when al-Omran, about to get her bachelor’s degree in accounting with a diploma in financial modeling from Riyadh’s King Saud University, heard about a new local company that was hiring female graduates, she applied. After she received her offer, her father, who works in the aircraft industry, visited the center and interviewed her new bosses to make sure it was an acceptable situation. With his support, al-Omran started as a trainee in January 2014.
In the future, TCS plans to open additional outsourcing centers with women workers in cities outside of Riyadh. Says Vincent, “If this isn’t proof of what women can do, I don’t know what is.”