A brave new era for Saudi Arabia's women workers?

Getting more from Saudi Arabia's workforce
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Story highlights

  • Female engineers works side-by-side with male counterparts
  • Saudi Arabian king pushes for more women in workforce
  • One in five women in the kingdom currently work
  • Banned from driving, gender segregation is the norm
In a country where women aren't allowed to drive, a female engineer is showing her male colleagues a thing or two.
Wearing a headscarf and science goggles, Jumana Almuzel is a rare sight on the shop floor of Saudi Arabia's GE gas turbine facility.
Indeed, she is the only female to work alongside her male counterparts at the energy giant's Eastern Province plant.
"When I came to the shop floor I was working with the men side-by-side, and they were asking me some questions," said Almuzel, an American-educated mechanical engineer.
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"We are helping each other, and they can see that I'm capable of understanding the mechanics behind the components that we are working on."
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It's a radical change for a country where gender segregation is the norm, and just one in five women work.
But change is afoot in this ultra-conservative kingdom, and it's being driven from the very top by the ruler King Abdullah.
With around 8 million expatriate workers in the country, Saudi officials say there is an over-reliance on foreign labor.
Could local women entering the workforce be a way of combating that?
An all-female business processing center has now opened in Riyadh, with plans to employ over 3,000 women.
"The irony is, many of the unemployed are highly educated females," said Khalid Al Falih, CEO of energy giant Saudi Aramco, at the opening of the new center.
"Over 50% of unemployed females hold a university degrees, and that's because mixed work environments are not available."
Meanwhile, Indian communications group Tata has already set up an all-female call center in Saudi Arabia.
Despite these advances in women's work life, a major exception remains.
They are still banned from getting behind the wheel of a car and driving themselves to work.