Gender Diversity in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco


Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: good morning.

It is a privilege to speak at Naseba’s first forum here in the Kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Aramco is pleased to be the lead sponsor of this historic event.

As a father of four daughters, I have a personal and vested interest in supporting the goals of – and the opportunities for – women in the Kingdom. I am also a Saudi. Which of course means that I have a further vested interest in the success of Vision 2030, including the target to increase female participation in the Kingdom’s workforce.

For the purposes of today, I would like to focus my remarks on women working in my industry, my company and in our country.

When I started my career with Schlumberger in 1991, there were few women in the company despite it being a leader in workforce diversity. I vividly remember the tough training I went through in Parma, Italy, along with a dozen other engineers from around the world. Six and half grueling days every week for four straight months. There was only one female in our group, and she was among those who did not complete the training.

Five years later I moved to Saudi Aramco, joining the marketing department. Now, given this was not a field position, I expected there would be more women in various roles. But once again, there were only a few females doing secretarial work. Aramco did in fact have women in other senior roles at that time, but primarily in healthcare and HR.

Over the ensuing years – I am pleased to say – Saudi Aramco has made notable progress on the gender diversity front. Let me give you an example.

On my 20th anniversary with the company, I went back to work where I started: in marketing. I was appointed CEO of Aramco Trading – a company we set up a few years ago to trade our refined products and chemicals around the world. There was a sea-change from two decades earlier: in terms of prices, industry structure, markets complexity, competition, role of emerging markets, and more. In short, the marketing environment I returned to was far more challenging.

There was one other very significant change: gender diversity.

One-third of the 170 employees on the trading floor were women. The company was in fact a model of women and men working seamlessly together. So it’s no surprise that Aramco Trading has grown to be among the largest traders in the world, capturing significant value from the company’s refining assets around the globe. This increased diversity is not limited to marketing. Indeed, Saudi Aramco now employs a number of talented women in senior positions.

People like Dr. Abeer Al-Olayan – a petroleum scientist who works in our Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center. Abeer was recently named Middle East Oil & Gas Woman of the Year for ground-breaking work that includes leading a team in developing smart materials. Smart materials like a liquid that transforms into gel when exposed to high stress and converts back to liquid form when conditions normalize.

A striking fact is that one of our top performers in Aramco Trading was her sister, Hanan. The first woman in Saudi Aramco to lead the operation team for sales of crude oil and refined petroleum products. That such diversity in talent is observed in these two sisters (one a scientist and the other a commercial expert) is a testament to the tremendous capacity of women and their wide range of talent.

Also people like Dr. Samantha Horseman – an inventor who works in an area we call Human Energy Management. She has 40 patents to her name. Last year, she received global recognition for two of her creations – a driver safety system and an innovative Predictive Personal Protective Equipment. In fact, women working at Saudi Aramco have – at last count – filed more than 170 patents in recent years. While such indicates promising progress, let me add that Saudi Aramco recognizes the need for further gender diversity – both now and in the future.

From my perspective, we have three critical enablers to empowering women in our workforce and I believe they serve as a blueprint for other companies.

First, a company’s leadership has to believe in diversity.

This may seem somewhat obvious and counter intuitive, but despite half a century of research that proved the value of diversity in a workforce, some companies seek female employment for other reasons: like meeting corporate quotas. In reality however, gender diversity must to be championed by a leadership team that truly believes in its many benefits.

At Saudi Aramco, we created the Women Development and Diversity Division a few years ago. Its mandate is to provide programs that develop professional careers for women and help them build leadership skills. Its activities include dialogue with executives across the company to benchmark and increase diversity at all levels, including leadership.

A second key enabler is a focused effort on hiring women.

Saudi Aramco understands there is tough competition for qualified female talent. And that this talent requires target hiring. Accordingly, we have increased female recruitment to more than 20% of all our new hires. We are now hiring more women at Saudi Aramco than ever before.

Females now receive one out of every three overseas scholarships we provide to students. In fact, we currently sponsor 270 young Saudi females pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and other majors around the world. To broaden the pool of qualified female talent into the energy sector, we run outreach programs for female students in elementary schools to encourage future careers related to the STEM subjects.

Our own STEMania Program targets young females in an all-female environment, and is run in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. Saudi Aramco further understands the need to attract and retain women through professional work environments that cater to the needs of working women.

The third enabler is development support.

Having leaders that champion diversity, and active female recruiting is simply not enough. In fact most of the effort towards diversity is in the support enabler, which can take on many forms. In Saudi Aramco we’ve put in place mentoring, development and leadership programs for females. We also developed policies to ensure the work environment is both respectful and tolerant, and ensured that males support and champion diversity - particularly leaders who are important role models for the rest of the company.

Saudi Aramco strives to be a good corporate citizen. To that end, we advocate the benefits of gender diversity to the larger corporate community through sponsorships like this conference.

We have also leveraged our experience and demand for services to partner with Tata and GE to establish the All-Women Business Process Services and IT Center here in Riyadh, providing career opportunities to more than 1000 women, while serving an important function for businesses in the kingdom. A success story we are repeating with Princess Nora University. We have also initiated a platform called GROW (Gulf Region Organization for Women) that brings together more than 30 companies in the region all striving to bridge the gender opportunity gap.

As I noted earlier, the business case for companies increasing the number of women in the workplace and in leadership is well-documented. Likewise are the economic benefits of increased gender diversity in any nation’s workforce. Research has shown that increasing female labor force participation and closing the gender wage gap can yield tremendous benefits. Indeed, Brookings’ researchers demonstrated that doing so reduces the skills gap, boosts economic growth and cuts poverty.

Vision 2030 is driving the largest and fastest economic and social reform program in our history. Diversity of the economy and diversity of the workforce are two of the foundational elements of these reforms. The economic gains from these efforts will be immense (ان شاء الله). I believe that starting from a relatively low level of female labor force participation should confer greater benefits to our economy than what studies on advanced economies have demonstrated - particularly when considering the level of education attained by Saudi women.

Throughout today and tomorrow, you will hear from many remarkable women and undoubtedly be inspired by their experiences. As someone who has seen – firsthand – the power of women in the workforce in the largest employer in the Kingdom, let me offer some concluding advice to the young women with us today.

I encourage you to seize the opportunity you are being given. Do so by prioritizing your development and aiming high, while also trying to maintain that elusive work-life balance.

By the way, this is the exact same advice I would give your male counterparts. Except, however, I believe that you – as females – have a greater opportunity to do amazing things because of the diversity dividend you bring to the table. Notwithstanding, most of you may face greater challenges than males - an unavoidable consequence of being pioneers in many activities and industries. But with determination, you can and will succeed - and in doing so help make Vision 2030 a reality.

On that note, I would like to thank the organizers of the women in leadership forum for their kind invitation for me to share my thoughts with you, wish you a successful and productive event, and hand the floor to a few more of the many women thriving in my place of work.