Factors affecting women working in the pharmaceutical sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Factors affecting women working in the pharmaceutical sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia


Thanks to its considerable oil resources, Saudi Arabia has evolved from a relatively poor country to become the world’s dominant oil producer and one of the wealthiest regions in the Middle East. There is international pressure on the rulers to embrace political and social reforms, including enhancing the participation of women within the national workforce.

Research Background

Interesting findings about working women in adjacent Jordan have been generated by the country’s National Centre for Human Resource Development, which has carried out research into the experience of women workers in the private sector, namely in the Communications, Internet and Pharmaceuticals industries. This research was prompted because of recognition that “women’s participation in the Jordanian labour market is growing and the fact that women’s participation is often hindered by social perceptions, practices and sometimes legislation” (Peebles, Darwazeh, Ghosheh and Sabbah, 2007). Given the size and scale of Jordan (population approximately 6.5 million) compared with Saudi Arabia (population approximately 27.1 million), it seems likely that some of these hindrances will also apply to Saudi Arabia.

The pharmaceuticals industry in Saudi Arabia is the richest in the Gulf region[1] and among the largest of all those in the Middle East: “Saudi Arabia represents 65%, or $1.7 billion of the pharmaceutical market in the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)[2], which is currently valued at

$2.7 billion per year[3]” (Issa, Al-Ammar and Mostafa, 2009).


The research proposal is to examine the factors affecting women working in the pharmaceuticals industry, with particular reference to perceived advantages and barriers. It is anticipated that the issues arising will include those touching on human rights, equal opportunities and discrimination; religion and education; legislation, including family law; cultural norms; and also resistance to radical change within the community of Saudi Arabian females.

Academic Literature

Academic treatises on women in Muslim cultures include a synopsis of literature reviews produced by the Library of Congress (Offenhauer, 2005), which includes chapters on women’s roles in the productive economy as well as in the domestic setting.

Maryland University’s Professor in the Department of Business and Executive Programs, Dr. Dorothy Minkus-McKenna, researched entrepreneurship among Saudi Arabian women albeit on an exploratory basis and without the benefit of statistical data, and noted the different ways in which ‘success’ is measured and valued. This provides useful background information about women’s perceptions of their role in the workplace.

In a further look at entrepreneurship, another study (Sadi and Al-Ghazali, 2009) sought to establish what motivated women entrepreneurs and pinpointed barriers as being a lack of co-ordination and governmental support; limited competition due to market domination; a dearth of market studies; poor support from the internal community and the general restrictions imposed by society.

Whilst limited, the available literature serves to confirm that women in Saudi Arabia struggle to establish themselves in the workplace on an equal footing with men.

Overall Aim and Objectives

The aim of the research is to identify the key factors that act as obstacles to women working in the pharmaceuticals sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). To achieve this, the focus of the research will be on the pharmaceuticals company, Saudi Pharmaceutical Industries[4], one of the largest research-driven companies producing veterinary, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals products in KSA.

The objectives of the research will be to establish:

Whether societal and cultural norms in KSA act against women making progress in the workplace.
Whether the impact of legislation relating to the workplace has an adverse affect on women.
Whether childcare responsibilities interfere with women’s progress in their working lives.
Whether financial pressures, and related issues, have a bearing on working women.

In relation to the pharmaceuticals sector:

Whether there are perceptions that some jobs are more appropriate for women than others.
Whether gender bias, marital status, personal appearance and religious discrimination have a bearing on recruitment techniques and practices.
Whether there are perceived or real barriers to women achieving management positions.
Research Methodology and Methods

A number of methods will be used in order to achieve the objectives. Secondary research will establish the required information on cultural and societal norms, and legislation. Primary research will provide the quantitative and qualitative information pertaining to women in the workplace.

Participants will be invited to complete a questionnaire without disclosing their name. In this way their anonymity will be protected and it should ensure that they are able to be open and honest about their workplace experiences without any fear of reprisal.

Online questionnaires will enable participants with access to a computer to respond relatively quickly and easily, however paper questionnaires can also be issued if this is deemed more suitable for certain members of the sample population.

Primary Research

A questionnaire designed to elicit the required information will be prepared for workers at the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA). The Authority was established on 10th March 2033 and is charged with ensuring that drugs and foodstuffs manufactured for consumption by humans and animals are safe; this includes chemical and biological substances and also medical equipment. SFDA has been chosen because it has a relationship at some level with all the pharmaceuticals companies in Saudi Arabia, and it also sets the standards and regulations as to how they operate.

Questionnaire 1:

The survey will include a sample of both male and female workers at SFDA, based on the demographic of people of working age in Saudi Arabia. Current estimates indicate that the ratio of males to females aged 15–64 years is approximately 5:4, however it is not known exactly how many female workers are currently employed at SFDA. Ideally, a sample of 180 employees would include 100 men and 80 women.

The questionnaire will ask workers about their educational background prior to employment, to provide information on their current position at SFDA. Data will be gathered on their responsibilities in the workplace, and also those outside work relating to childcare and care of any other dependants. Questions about the impact the job makes on their financial situation will be included. Finally, the questionnaire will seek to establish the career plans of participants and their experiences of training and promotion.

Questionnaire 2:

Directed at Human Resources (HR) personnel, this questionnaire will ask about participants’ interview techniques when recruiting staff, including the extent to which personal questions about an applicant’s marital status, social status, place of residency and childbearing plans are discussed. Peebles, Darwazeh, Ghosheh and Sabbah (2007) found it was common practice among HR professionals in Jordan to ask personal questions at job interviews, which the staff justified on the basis that this was a way of obtaining information about the character of an applicant, and of determining their suitability for work-related travel or overtime.

The questionnaire will ask about the types of jobs, and the opportunities for training and promotion, that are available to men and women, with the intention of determining whether these are on an equal footing. Qualitative information on the perceived commitment levels of female and male employees will also be sought.

Other Methods

Data collection could also be achieved via a longitudinal study, that is where the researcher spends a considerable period of time embedded in the organisation in order to observe interrelationships and company operations on a day-to-day basis.

Structured or semi-structured interviews could be conducted with workers and HR personnel as an alternative to a survey.

One or more focus groups could be convened to discuss the findings of the survey, in order to provide enhanced qualitative information.

These methods have been considered and rejected as they are either too time-consuming and impracticable.

Secondary Research

Reports and articles by other researchers concerned with female workers in the Middle East and their work experiences in pharmaceuticals companies will be studied to obtain an overview of the sector and the key issues relating to women workers. Very basic statistical information about SFDA is also available on LinkedIn[5] where a few members of staff are also listed.

Data Analysis

Information from the questionnaires will be analysed to elicit clear information on the position of women working in pharmaceuticals in KSA – their educational background, experience of recruitment, training and promotion and any barriers they have encountered in terms of their advancement in the workplace. Qualitative information will provide the context for the statistics.

Planning and Critical Analysis

Permission will be needed from the SFDA Executive Management to conduct the survey among a sample of staff members, and the researcher’s contact person within the company could facilitate this.

If permission is not granted, it may still be possible for some members of staff to participate in a private capacity (for example, via LinkedIn) although participants may be hesitant and it may be difficult to attract 180 people by this method.

SFDA may wish to alter the wording or the questions in the survey to suit company needs, however any proposed changes will have to be carefully scrutinised by the researcher before any changes are agreed.

Alternatively, another pharmaceuticals company could be used, such as Merck Serono, which has a base in Saudi Arabia but company headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and a UK office.


The surveys are limited to a selection of the working population in one specific organisation and although a degree of extrapolation is possible the findings will not represent a comprehensive and in-depth view of the country’s entire pharmaceuticals sector.


Obtaining permissions and approvals and distributing questionnaires will take up to five weeks, with

data analysis in week six and writing up of the findings in weeks seven – ten.


BBC (2012). Saudi Arabia profile. Online. 16th January. [available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14702705]

Issa, N.A., Al-Ammar, A.I. and Mostafa, S. (2009) Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Industries in Saudi Arabia. American Health Lawyers Association.

Minkus-McKenna, D. (2009). Women Entrepreneurs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Working paper. http://bit.ly/yCoxTY

Offenhauer, P. (2005). Women in Islamic societies: a selected review of social scientific literature. Report. Library of Congress. Online. [available at: http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Women_Islamic_Societies.pdf]

Peebles, D., Darwazeh, N., Ghosheh H. and Sabbah, A. (2007) Factors Affecting Women’s Participation in the Private Sector in Jordan. Research Report. National Center for Human Resources Development.

Sadi, M. A. and Al-Ghazali, B. M. (2010). ‘Doing business with impudence: A focus on women entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia. Research paper.’ African Journal of Business Management Vol. 4(1), pp.1-11, January. Online. [available at: http://www.academicjournals.org/AJBM].

Saudi Food and Drug Authority. [available at: http://www.sfda.gov.sa/En/Home/Topics/about/]