Female leaders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

I have just spent a truly lovely day largely in the company of a number of wonderful female school leaders in Riyadh, ahead of the inaugural GESS Saudi Arabia conference, which takes place on 6-7 May. Today has been enormously uplifting and stimulating; I have enjoyed engaging in discussions, astute observations, and insights. Plus we laughed and hugged a lot!

I coach many successful senior female school leaders across the world, and encounter many more female leaders through the recruitment processes in which I am privileged to be involved with LSC Education; each female leader is different (as you would expect!), and each is at a different stage in their careers / lives / self-confidence / self-awareness. However, one thing I consistently notice about these female school leaders is an enhanced, acute drive to succeed in their roles by forging ahead, pushing boundaries and creating a more equal world.

Reflecting on this, I am sure that this drive will be born to a large extent of the need that many female leaders readily acknowledge, ie that they feel they must keep proving themselves to the world – not, in fact, because they actually need to do so personally, because they are already demonstrably successful, but because the world still has vestigial (and not so vestigial) memories of imbalances between men and women in leadership roles. Most of the female leaders I meet have stories of encountering unconscious bias throughout their career, and they realise that they still have to lead the way in creating and embedding new layers of expectations about what leadership can look like when women practise it.

These female leaders have for the most part discovered and developed communities of other female leaders, who are willing supporters and mentors (including the WISE programme, who have just announced their 2025 conference, this time in Seoul); they also, however, usually have an acute recognition of how much still needs to change in order to ensure that future generations of women do not encounter frustrations or limitations in their careers, many of which derive directly from prejudices born of lack of understanding that women can actually be extraordinary leaders. This awareness – and their determination to do something about it – translates into the pioneer, forward-facing drive that is almost tangible in these successful female leaders.

As you might expect, the social history and developmental curve of Saudi Arabia makes this drive even more significant. Riyadh is a very welcoming place, yet the laws and rules that have brought a greater equalisation of women and men are still recent; moreover, laws and rules take time to be translated into social norms. Being a female leader in the Kingdom is clearly perfectly possible; substantial change always requires role modelling, however, so that girls and young women can see who they can be.

One of the panel sessions that I am chairing at GESS Saudi Arabia is about success stories for women in education, and I am really, really looking forward to this. The female leaders with whom I spent such a glorious time today already have their stories to tell; what is so exciting to see is not only how they will add to them over the next few years, but also how they will empower and enable others. The future awaits!

1 comment

    • Zoe Woolley on May 8, 2024 at 7:54 am
    • Reply

    The topic of women in leadership is complex as there are so many external factors in play. For me it is about taking the time to map the route up that mountain, enjoying the view as we pause along the way to learn from what the environment can give to us. Making the time to looking upwards and strategically deciding the next steps is so important.
    To use a climbing analogy, as a woman in leadership, I lay the lines so that others can follow. Their journey should be easier to start with as the route is already in place, so this will allow them to reach greater heights.

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