Forget the culture, what about your customers? Saudi Ikea and a no-women catalogue

Now you see her, now you don’t. Ikea’s Saudi franchise forgot about the half of the population that makes (most of) the decisions about what goes in the house.

Ikea has been in the news of late for all of the wrong reasons. If you haven’t seen, read, heard or been told about the ‘incident’, then read the below from NBC’s website.

Scrubbing the bathroom got a whole new meaning in the Saudi Arabian Ikea catalog. The Swedish home and furnishings retailer faced criticism after reports surfaced that Ikea digitally erased women from pictures in the Saudi version of the catalog.

In one picture of a family in a bathroom, the mother standing at the sink with her son was removed. Even one of the retailer’s own designers, Clara Gausch, was erased from a photo featuring four of the brand’s designers.

Sweden’s trade minister Ewa Björling told the newspaper Metro the vanishing women were a “sad example” of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive and must be covered in public.

In a statement to the BBC, the company said “excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the Ikea Group values.” It blamed the missing women on the franchisee who runs Ikea’s Saudi operations and said, “We do not accept any kind of discrimination.”

While every media outlet around is poking fun at the Swedish furniture icon (and Swedes take their human rights and equality issues very, very seriously), the question I’d ask Ikea’s Saudi franchise is who do you think is buying your furniture? I’ve rarely seen any man in Ikea either in Riyadh or Jeddah deciding on what will go in the house.

So, how is getting rid of women in the catalogue going to help shift furniture? How does ignoring your target audience and not promoting your brand values with half of the population, the half that (mainly) look after domestic matters. So again, what was Saudi’s Ikea franchise thinking? Forget the women, let’s keep the conservatives happy. And yes, you can find women’s pictures being published in Saudi Arabia so why did the franchise take the risk?

Viral conversations – Saudi Women’s Forum streamed live with #womanforum hashtag

I often get asked about Saudi Arabia, about its people, customs and culture. But every so often you can get a glimpse into this magic kingdom and enjoy a peak at the real Saudi. Last week, on the 10th and 11th of December, the Saudi Center for Women’s Studies held a conference on women’s rights and responsibilities. For the first time I can remember for such an event, it was streamed live on the internet, including with commentary in English.

While I’d love to have a peak at the number of unique users on the site, social media activity in the Kingdom surged during the two days. Writing with the hashtag #womanforum Saudi and Arab nationals shared and commented on the views presented by the speakers (as this is Riyadh/Saudi women speakers did not share the same hall as the men and so were not visible in the video if you were wondering why there seemed to be no women at a women’s conference).

Most of the tweets and updates were in Arabic, but others did post in English.!/commitmentphobi/status/147175873446019073

The organizers of the event even used Facebook to upload pictures of the event and the speakers involved. If I can dig out the link I’ll add here.

Several days later in both English and Arabic media articles were published on the event. Here’s the link to the Arab News story, and the other for the Saudi Gazette piece.

While the media did pick up on important aspects of the event, the pieces were published several days after and lacked both the immediacy of the social media feeds as well as the cut and thrust of the debates online. With Saudi women and their rights being such an important topic in the Kingdom today, you’d have to ask if one article in a newspaper could do justice to the entire event.

As an addition to the above much of the argument for Saudi women working has been waged online. This is one video that was circulated this week using the womanforum hashtag. The video was uploaded in March but was circulated again this time round due to the renewed focus on women’s rights and work in Saudi. There’s nothing like a viral conversation, even in the magic kingdom.

Empowering women in Saudi through Glowork

Despite the size of the Kingdom and the importance of the country both in terms of its GDP and population, it’s not often that I get excited about anything online over here in Saudi. Recently, one initiative which I’ve been fully behind has proved that there are people out there who understand the power of the internet and who are determined to harness it for the good of progress in Saudi Arabia.

I was introduced to the team behind Glowork before its official launch. Put as simply as possible, Glowork is the first employment website dedicated to women looking for work in Saudi Arabia. Remarkably, there’s never been any similar initiative that I’ve been aware of in the country despite the millions of women over here both in employment and wanting to work. This is even more surprising considering that the majority of Saudi university graduates are females. There’s a wealth of talent out there that few companies have tapped into.

The team at Glowork have worked flat out to build awareness about the site among all the women out there online in Saudi as well as with employers. They’ve identified a niche and they are matching women with companies who they may not otherwise have been able to connect with. The likes of Panda, Microsoft and KPMG are today using Glowork to advertise positions for women in Saudi Arabia.

What is also striking is that Glowork’s marketing people are not using conventional advertising to promote themselves. Instead, they’ve gone online and are busy posting updates on Facebook and tweeting about new positions. This approach has allowed the site to build up a loyal following among thousands of women in the Kingdom as well as enable these women to interact with those behind the site and learn about the recruitment process.

We’re still a long way off having women being an integral part of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. However, sites such as Glowork will make a huge difference to all those women looking to start their careers in Jeddah, Riyadh and Al-Khobar. When you think that there’s over ten million women here, that’s a huge market to tap into.

Kudos to Glowork’s founders for being both the first into this space and for how they’re looking to reach out to women through social media. I hope others learn from your efforts. And if you haven’t checked out the Glowork site then go there, now!