Being a woman architect in Saudi Arabia
Fatimah AlQaisoum and Batool Al Mualem are both working as architectural designers at Assystem Radicon, Saudi Arabia. As such, they participate in commercial, residential and even governmental projects, from drawing plans to polishing the interior design details. Last year they were part of the team from Saudi Arabia and France that won the internal innovation contest with their incredibly creative idea for an artificial intelligence platform to implement technology in the construction industry.
Choosing a career against tradition
Traditionally considered a man’s industry, Fatimah and Batool both encountered support from their family. On Batool’s side, her father was an architect himself and he made her love this job. “I have a passion for design, whether it be fashion, interior design or architecture itself since my childhood, and this passion grew with me. I found that architectural design was the major where I could unleash my inherent creativity. Each design is like a story of beauty starting all over again.”
For Fatimah, her choice didn’t come from any example in the family. “Since childhood, I have always been interested in historical buildings. I was imagining how those buildings could be renovated while still be presenting their historical importance to the city. The old family house was my first space to investigate a traditional building. Yet I never knew that was only the beginning and that I would go on to pursue architectural design later on.” If Fatimah’s family proved very supportive of her decision, she felt the community was reluctant, convinced that she wouldn’t be able to get a job in this “male’s field”. Indeed, traditionally in Saudi Arabia, women are more oriented towards medical positions. “I was confident the major was worth the sacrifice and I chose not to care about what other people thought of it. I am so glad I did, I am very proud of the work I’m accomplishing every day and the changes I am making in the built environment.”
Working in a male-dominated environment
“If nowadays women are able to join the industry without questioning, it wasn’t the case 10 years ago”, explains Fatimah, which is probably the reason why the proportion of women is still low compared to men. “Currently there are only three female architectural designers at Assystem Radicon. Yet this small number will hopefully be multiplied in the coming years as the view of genderism in construction is reforming.”
According to Batool, the whole society is going through a change. “The community is focusing on women’s power and energies. Even the “Saudization”, the policy that forces Saudi companies to favor hiring Saudi nationals up to certain levels, is helping female employment”.
“The share of Saudi women in the labor market rose by 23 percent in 2018. In addition, Vision 2030 allows Saudi women to occupy important leadership positions in the country. An increasing number of girls are also receiving university scholarships both locally and externally in order to complete their studies. This is creating great opportunities for women to participate in the economic development of the country. I know some of the girls who opened their own engineering offices. This was not the case 10 to 20 years ago, now the whole country is becoming more open”.
“Being a woman can actually come with true advantages for the client” explains Batool. “My father has always told me that this sector can fit women strongly, where females tend to focus more on detail. We also pay more attention to the clients’ feelings and emotions to make sure we really understand what they expect, especially for residential projects”.
Nonetheless, there is still a long way to equality between men and women. “One of my supervisors once told me that being a site architect wasn’t a female’s job” shares Fatimah. “Some clients also prefer to work with men, but I think it’s more a question of personality than a cultural ideology. These behaviors just pushed me to get my degree, and later to work harder.” Likewise, “men who are equally qualified to women still earn up to 60% more in the same roles” according to Batool.
Competing for a world exposure
In Batool’s opinion, “a lot of doors are opening now. The new Saudi generation is keen on participating in competitions. For sure, being creative helps to get more exposure to the world.” This very state of mind made them enter Assystem’s worldwide internal competition, nudged by their manager, to apply the latest technologies to their field.
Their first idea, implementing a mixed reality technology helping to visualise a building or an infrastructure before it gets built, was nominated to the final. Batool and Fatimah’s project was merged with another one from France, and the two women were sent to the headquarters to present the ideas. “The language barrier was not easy at first”, confesses Fatimah. “But the team was amazing, they did a great job to minimise all barriers to get into the final idea”. Batool confirms: “It was really interesting to work with multiple nationalities on a project, I learned a lot. It was an incredible experience”.
As Saudi Arabia keeps opening up to the world, both Batool and Fatimah hope to see more independent women, willing to complete their studies, work, and be free of men’s domination. The change is happening now.