In a first for the country, two women have been appointed to head key financial institutions as the kingdom takes a step towards inclusive growth.

Who are these game-changers?

They are both experienced bankers.

Sarah Al Suhaimi will head Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, Tadawaul, the largest securities market in the Middle East.

She has worked her way up through Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated financial sector, holding key positions in investment firms over the years.

A Harvard University alumna, Suhaimi was also the first female chief executive of a Saudi investment bank when she took the role at NCB Capital in 2014.

In another first for Saudi women, Rania Mahmoud Nashar, was appointed to run Samba Financial Group, one of the largest banks in the kingdom.

She has two decades of experience in the financial sector and has held several positions at the same bank.

Nashar is the only Saudi woman certified as an anti-money laundering specialist by an American association of experts.

Are these the most prominent appointments for Saudi women?

Not really.

Women have in recent years started working in professions like architecture and engineering. Their increased participation has coincided with the change in Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards women.

In offices and malls, young women are making their presence felt by selling everything from lingerie to investment plans.

Lubna Olayan, the CEO of multi-billion-dollar Olayan Financing, is one such example.

She started working for her father’s company, which has franchising agreements with big brands like Burger King, in 1983 and has since steered its expansion.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spearheading an economic diversification plan that includes greater participation of women in the workplace. Source: Reuters

Lubna was the only woman in the company for next 18 years. That’s how long it took to convince colleagues to allow another woman to work with them.

Since the early 2000s, female hiring has been rapid. The company boasts of having 400 women in its offices by 2015.

What led to the shift in attitude towards women?

Saudi Arabia’s youth and those who studied abroad are pushing for more freedoms.

Half of Saudi Arabia’s university graduates are women. Many are now entering the fields of banking and engineering, marking a shift from the education and health sectors, where Saudi women were traditionally employed.

King Abdullah, who passed away in 2015, heralded the change in 2009 when he nominated Nora Bint Abdullah al-Fayez as deputy education minister, making her the first woman to hold an official post.

Two years later, he approved reforms that saw women awarded the right to vote, run in municipal elections, and be appointed to the Shura Council, the consultative assembly. It now has 29 female members.

Have the measures increased women’s participation in the economy?

Not yet.

Although more women are graduating from university, only 22 percent of positions in the public and private sectors are occupied by women.

Women voted in the 2015 election for the first time, a development seen by women activists as a small victory. (AP)

Women may still not have the right to drive vehicles, but their participation in the workforce over the past 15 years has been increasing. In 2004, only 23,000 women were employed by the private sector. That number jumped to over half a million by 2014.

Somayya Jabarti, who became the first woman to become editor-in-chief of a Saudi newspaper, hopes for more change.

“There’s a crack that has been made in the glass ceiling. And I’m hoping it will be made into a door,” she told Al Arabiya English.

How is the government backing this transition?

Saudi Arabia has embarked on massive economic reforms after global crude oil prices dropped. The kingdom is heavily reliant on its export earnings and tax revenue from the petroleum industry.

Under the National Transformation Plan, the government wants to increase female participation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030.

With economic managers shifting the focus away from oil and towards knowledge-based sectors, women’s participation in the economy is key.

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