Step by step, things changed. When women first began working, they had separate work spaces in companies and used different entrances, to maintain segregation. But now, co-working has become the norm.
“The important thing here is that you see them really working side by side with men, and it’s very relaxed,” Al-Lail said. “… You can find a lot of women really working together with men, with no fear of really having anything happen to them. So the law is supporting that in one way or another.”
Saudi Arabia is often misrepresented internationally, she explains. Women are far more involved in the world of work and politics than many realize, being present on boards of directors, and having opportunities far greater than many believe.
“The ceiling for women is not what it was,” Al-Lail said. Women have voices in some of the major governing councils, “and almost 30 percent of the parliament members are female,” she said.
A Leader Who Wears Many Hats
Al-Lail realizes that her role in this slowly unfolding process of granting more freedom to women is critical.
More than simply the president of a university, she sees herself as a mother to all under her wing, wearing the hat of counselor as much as educator. She acts as a voice for Saudi women, speaking at regional and global events like the World Economic Forum.
And while it is not the public policy changing role she once imagined, perhaps her role now is much more important.
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“I’m the mother for any student, any young female that wants to be here,” she said. “If you’re an educational leader, you cannot really only say I’m academician and I’m a researcher. You have to be ready to do some counselling.”
Haifaa M. Mussallam, a student, agrees that as a counselor, mother figure, and role model, Al-Lail serves a vital role for young Saudi women.
“Dr. Haifa is definitely a leader I look up to, not only for her innovation and long-term visions for the university but also in how caring she is towards her students,” Mussallam said. “She treats each of us as her own, which is rarely seen by women in a strong position such as herself. She is a woman I look up to, for her poise, intelligence and fairness in treatment.”