In recent weeks, Google, Amazon, and Apple announced plans to launch technology partnerships in Saudi Arabia. Tech firms have already come under scrutiny for alleged gender pay discrimination and for fostering work environments hostile to women professionals. Now they seek to expand their businesses in a country that has a well-known track record for oppressing its female population.
What are the legal, ethical, and corporate social responsibilities of publicly traded companies that invest in countries that have gender discrimination baked into their legal code?
Due to a suffocating combination of laws and practices, women in Saudi Arabia still can’t do much without the permission of a male guardian. Even though an outdated driving ban against women is finally being removed in June 2018, it’s a long-overdue baby step. In fact, it’s possible the ban will only be lifted for women over 29 years old, or for those with work contracts, and just for daytime driving. This is a far cry from a complete dismantling of a ban that’s not a remnant of Islam, but of Bedouin tradition that has long held women back from full participation in society and the economy.
How do tech giants such as Google, Amazon, and Apple reconcile their supposed progressive egalitarian corporate principles with these realities? And would they behave the same way if the issue at hand was not gender inequality but racial inequality in the countries where they are seeking to invest?
In fairness to such tech companies, they are not the first to enter these markets, nor are they the first firms to encounter local laws that are not consistent with their inclusive missions. However, because of the strength of their global brands, appeal to younger consumers, and inclusive corporate missions—they may be uniquely positioned to be essential agents of change.
The companies have a unique opportunity to advance gender equality in a part of the world where it has sorely lagged. Particularly in Saudi Arabia—a regionally influential country that is currently experiencing massive internal political and social disruption—there’s a unique opportunity to mobilise their brand equities and investments to help women in ways that were not available before.
Global tech firms can start the process of positive change by simply hiring more women, particularly in countries where they are socially and legally oppressed. Increasingly well-educated, local women are an enormous source of potential talent in a country such as Saudi Arabia, whose economy needs new ideas. But how will Google respond when one of their adult female managers requires a male relative’s permission to travel abroad on company business? How will it address the reality that Saudi women may earn a paycheque, but cannot legally open a bank account without a male guardian’s permission? Will the firm simply turn a blind eye on these ethical issues and submit to the authority of the country’s laws? That would be a mistake—these global firms are in a unique position to help dismantle such legal and cultural obstacles to women’s professional independence.
One solution is to establish formal corporate programs to train and promote more local women into managerial and technical roles. It will be critical to implement integrated environments where everyone works together in the same settings – ensuring no gender segregation. The more people, both male and female, become accustomed to seeing and interacting with local women in managerial and technical roles, the more accepting they will become—with positive results for all women. Facilitating and advocating financial independence, not just internally for its female employees but also for its local women customers, would be a valuable contribution to society. While it will take time, cultural change can be accelerated by these global companies whose corporate values and business missions claim to champion equality and inclusion.
Google, for example, previously displayed a commitment to its business ethics when it exited the Chinese market over censorship squabbles. Will the company exhibit similar ethical leadership qualities when evaluating its investments in Saudi Arabia?
In Saudi Arabia, a country in greater need of foreign investment than China, Google and other tech firms are in a unique position to be the falling domino that creates a ripple effect of cultural change, not just within Saudi Arabia but also across the entire region. Making legal gender equality a condition for business investment would be one of the fastest ways to dismantle the country’s archaic male guardianship laws.
Similarly, activist shareholders, employees, and customers can use their leverage as stakeholders to nudge these global giants to advance the rights of women locally. With their global clout, Google, Amazon, and Apple could accomplish what many decades of activist voices have been unable to achieve—legal gender equality.
Isn’t it time to make gender equality—for both employees and customers—a key focus of corporate social responsibility?