Her Royal Highness Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud is one of the world's most forward-thinking female advocates and prominent entrepreneurs. Having publicly spoken about the need for women in the workforce to sustain economic growth, Princess Reema is a modern thinker and revolutionary leader whose life accomplishments are as varied — and as prolific — as they come.
Having been involved in almost every industry imaginable, Princess Reema is clearly not the bonbon-eating type of royal. Bold, beautiful and unafraid, Princess Reema began her adult life as a museum studies major at George Washington University in Washington DC. At the time, her father was the ambassador to the United States (he served in this capacity from 1983 to 2005), which gave the princess a unique vantage point into Western culture, and undoubtedly contributed to her robust work ethic.
Bold, beautiful and epically motivated, Princess Reema is changing female face of Saudi Arabia.
When she returned to Saudi Arabia in 2005 as a college graduate, she immediately got to work, beginning with a stint as CEO of a luxury retail company. Throughout her career, Princess Reema has emerged as a diversely prolific entrepreneur.
She founded a handbag line, a woman's day spa, a breast cancer awareness association (for which she lead a group of women to climb Mount Everest), and a corporate social responsibility initiative, designed to provide access to opportunities through a proprietary self-branding curriculum. If that doesn't impress you, the Princess is also Deputy Planning and Development of the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia.
In this exclusive interview, the princess speaks to SWAAY about women's rights, sports, and social entrepreneurship.
1. Tell us what life was like for you in Saudi Arabia as a young girl.
While I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I actually was raised in Washington D.C. Arriving in the states at age 7, I returned home to live in Saudi Arabia 23 years later when my own daughter was 7 years old. Even though we returned frequently on holiday and for family events I always felt that I wanted a stronger connection to home. That is why my ex-husband and I made the decision to return home when we had our children at a young enough age so they could plant their roots in their nation.
2. You are heralded as a champion for women in business. Can you share your thoughts on equality in the workplace as it stands today?
Women should have no shame in asking for what they deserve, and know that doing so doesn't reduce their femininity, nor does it make them 'difficult' individuals. It has been my experience that respect has to be earned and maintained. The same goes with trust – those are basic principles that in truth should be gender neutral.
3. What is your advice for helping to level the playing field?
Time management and life management are one and the same for me. It is important to recognise that, much as we would like to, we cannot do everything. Once we accept this, the work life balance will be a matter of fact, not a matter of compromise. I believe the journey to success is faster achieved when one has a strong team. We need to honor those who support us outside of the work place, those people who facilitate us having the time to "get work done." I also believe that financial management is a crucial point that many women ignore. The first step to independence is financial literacy and stability. While it is wonderful to live for today, in reality we need to plan for tomorrow.
4. Women's rights are of course a major issue in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. How is the situation today? Is it improving?
It's improving faster than people who have not been to Saudi might be aware, as reflected in some recently published facts… For example, Saudi female university students today outnumber men; the Saudi Arabian legislative body has higher female participation than that of the U.S., and Saudi female entrepreneurship is on the rise. We are by no means perfect, but we are a nation of capable women who are growing in their fields, rising rapidly and publicly.
5. What advice do you give to female entrepreneurs who may be struggling to secure funding or see an idea to fruition?
Regardless of gender, I always recommend setting personal goals. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The journey to success cannot be replicated. Bill Gates didn't read a book on how to be Bill Gates. Clarity of vision and strategy will take you farther than any book can take you. That is what an investor is looking for – not a savvy quote, but a strategy and an execution plan.
6. Can you tell us a bit about your philanthropic organizations, Alf Khair and Zahra Breast Cancer Association? Why did you pick these two particular causes?
Alf Khair is not a philanthropic organization – rather, it is a social enterprise that I founded in 2013. Its mission is to create access to opportunities through programs that highlight values and financial self-sufficiency at the core. This has been realized through several initiatives, including a training curriculum called Alf Darb, a platform for discourse called Alf Hewar, and also the Guinness World Records-breaking and award-winning 10KSA, which raised awareness about holistic health with a focus on breast cancer. Zahra Breast Cancer Association is Saudi's first breast cancer awareness charity and was the chosen beneficiary of sponsorship raised during 10KSA. I am honored to be a founding member of this charity as it has opened my eyes to many of the nation's health and social issues. Those insights have profoundly impacted the work of Alf Khair as an organization.
7. How do you think women's role in business is changing? Do you see us ever reaching true equality?
What I realized was that it's not impossible, it's just not always been done before. It's okay to be the first one, but I don't want to be the only one.... that means I would not have done anything to help others, rather only helped myself. I believe it is important to leave room for others to grow into – it is important to let others in. Things have to change by default, if not by design. We exist, we are capable and we are here.
8. You vowed to involve (Saudi) women in sports, how are you planning on doing so? Why do you think it's important?
In my role at the General Sports Authority I aim to expand the understanding of sports to include: health, well-being and lifestyle. This dialogue is gender neutral. We need to think bigger than just the athlete – we need to focus on the ecosystem around that individual. That is where the economy of sports is born. Without the basic foundation of sports, hobbies and amateur sports, we will not have elite athletes. Without the trainers and the coaches and the volunteers, we will not have programs. Without the facilities and the products we will not have the tools to play or engage. We're a partner in the health sector, and proud to include women in sports for a healthier society and a more productive economy. Women's participation in sports has the potential to create thousands of jobs. We — especially women — must incorporate physical fitness in our lives. My goal at the General Sports Authority is to offer women the opportunity to engage further in physical activity through access to facilities and programs.
9. What is next for you? Where will you be focusing your efforts on in the next few months and years?
My dedication today is the expansion of the sports economy in Saudi Arabia. My role at the General Sports Authority has evolved to Deputy for Planning and Development, with diversity and women's affairs under my supervision. I'm honored to spend the next years of my life working with and for my community.
10. Do you have a life or business philosophy?
Do good and choose happy.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.