Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Is ‘separate but equal’ really development?

By Noshua Watson

The Saudi Industrial Property Authority is developing an industrial city for women workers, planned to open in 2013 in Hofuf, near Al-Ahsa.

The zone will likely have light industrial and clean manufacturing  projects. The city will not be women-only, but the factories will have special sections and production halls for women and it will be located close to residential neighbourhoods. It has been reported that the intention is to increase employment and income among Saudi women, while continuing to maintain traditions of gender segregation.

In development, it seems that we accept ‘separate but equal’ policies in employment, education, health and so on, when the objective is to increase economic, political or social equality. To its credit, the Saudi government ministry has resisted firms’ demands that the women be single or not pregnant if married.

In the OECD, there is considerable gender segregation in professions, despite relatively high female labour force participation. Gender segregation, plus time away from the workforce for care-giving, leads to the persistence of the wage gap between men and women. In order to evaluate the Saudi case, we need to see what happens. Does the disparity between male and female employment and wages decrease? Is there an increase in female ownership or entrepreneurship? What effect will this have on female schooling or maternal and child health? 

The real question is, is this a stop-gap to preserve power or a genuine step towards societal wellbeing?

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