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Saudi Arabia Women’s Leadership Forum in Higher Education

Holiday Inn – Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 28 Feb – 3 Mar 2016 — Dr. Jacquelyn “Jacqui” D. Elliott (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Dr. James Soto Antony (Harvard University), co-chair first women’s higher education forum in Saudi Arabia.

The goal of the forum was to advance the skills of women leaders in Saudi Arabia’s system of higher education by facilitating meaningful conversations about their impact and importance in the work setting, and also, to facilitate a support structure to further future conversations about empowering women in higher education through shared experiences.

Jacqui Presenting

The forum consisted of 80 women divided into cohorts of 25, attending 3 sessions per day over three days for a total of 9 different topics. A former female US college president consulted in each room. A ninety-minute reflection discussion was offered after each session led by the president emerita. During this reflection, participants were encouraged to synthesize the content of the sessions through applications that could help them in either their professional or daily life as higher education administrators.

Communication, Personal Leadership Awareness, Career Mapping, Personal Confidence, Influence, Authenticity and Advancement, Life Balance, Leadership, and Practical Issues in Getting Resources were some of the topics examined during the three-day forum. The sessions were designed for the women of Saudi Arabia in mind. One example of tailoring the course is that many of the women’s supervisors are men in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to mix in the same room as men, and as a result, generally attend meetings remotely through virtual connections. Elliott’s session on the gender communication gap addressed this difference by discussing how having limited nonverbal feedback could impact the overall interpretation of the meeting content, as well as limit the sphere of influence in the meeting.

When asked about what course was the most impactful in her sessions, Jacqui commented:

“The women loved the Career Mapping session. They wished they had more time to think about their life’s trajectory from their current position all the way to retirement. Many women articulated they had never even thought about their path that far out. “ Elliott further commented that the session “encouraged the participants to look at possibilities previously unimagined.”

To continue the conversations from the forum, a “WhatsApp“ group was created. The women stay connected and communicate every couple of days. The messages range from inspirational to practical problem solving solutions faced at work. Elliott commented “this international sisterhood gives us, as women, a support system so we can grapple with issues we all face, no matter our cultural differences.”

Saudi Arabia Women’s Leadership Forum in Higher Education

Not to say there are not cultural differences. In the Kingdom, for example, women can’t drive; they must always wear their abaya (a full robe covering the body from neck to toe) and a hijab (a traditional head cover) in public, and must be accompanied in most public places by men. That being said, women and men in Saudi Arabia have equal positions and pay. Also, enrollment to higher education is public access, and the government pays for tuition. This causes some enrollment woes due to the capacity of students per institution. For example, Princess Nora University is the largest women’s college with 52,308 enrolled currently with the capacity to take up to 60,000 students. That’s more than the total number of female postsecondary students in the country in 2009. Also, Saudi Arabia is the third largest exporter of international students to the United States..

So are there plans for future forums? “Yes”, said Elliott. “Due to the success of this year’s forum, there are plans for one in the next academic year. We are excited to see this momentum continue.”