Saudi Women Cast Their Vote – A Cultural Dimension Analysis

Saudi Women Cast Their Vote – A Cultural Dimension Analysis

History was made in Saudi Arabia on December 12th.  Women were allowed to vote…and to run for elected office.  It is estimated that out of about 7 million registered voters in Saudi Arabia, 1 million are men, and only 130,000 are women.  Why so low?  Haifa al-Habbabi, one of the candidates for nation-wide municipal elections, believes that it is because of the lack of awareness and the understanding of the importance of participating in society.  But still, why so few?

Let’s look at this phenomenon through the lens of cultural values. (1)

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, meaning that there is no elected legislature which leaves little room for citizens to participate in politics.  However, people can run for municipal councils, which are popularly-elected bodies where council members oversee local projects and approve their budgets, but do not have fiscal authority on how the money is spent.

There were approximately 6900 candidates running nationwide for this election and exactly 979 women ran for the 2000 seats available.  Twelve women won a seat – that is .6%.  A very small percentage, but think about what they had to overcome.  Laws prohibit candidates from displaying their pictures in campaign material and are not allowed to give interviews two weeks prior to the elections.  But for women, there is strict gender segregation so female candidates are not allowed to interact directly with male voters – the way around this:  reliance on male proxies, speaking behind screens, and using social media.  While this may be a small percentage of women it is nevertheless a big change in a country that traditionally controls gender differences.

Let’s explore these practices through a cultural lens – Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Value Dimensions– specifically Power Distance and Gender Distance (aka Masculinity and Femininity).  These cultural dimensions help to explain societal norms – a norm represents what is accepted and expected practice. In Saudi Arabia, the following are cultural norms form women  who will need approval of a mail guardian (father, husband, brother) in order to:

  • marry (or divorce)
  • enroll in a university
  • obtain a passport or travel abroad
  • visit a male doctor (must have male relative present) unless an emergency
  • obtain a driver’s license

What do cultural dimensions mean and why are they relevant to us as global business leaders?  In his 1980 book, Culture’s Consequences, Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, advanced the idea that value dimensions are aspects of culture that can be measured against other cultures.  He demonstrated how a particular culture could be compared to another by relating them along a continuum (a scale of 1-100).  As I commented in last week’s blog – in my teaching and consulting people often believe that it is not possible to measure a country’s culture and that doing so is judgmental.  This is a valid concern.  However, when we look at massive amounts of data that is collected and tested via the highest standard of statistical calculation, we can make generalizations about central tendencies of any group of people.  The important point is to remember that all groups of people are made up of individuals who may not fit into the centralized tendency. But knowing certain aspects of a given culture can help us understand important similarities and differences which are necessary for effective interaction.

Power Distance is a cultural attitude regarding the amount of distance (or power) between people at the top and people at the bottom.  Usually those at the bottom accept these inequalities although not necessarily agree with them.  Saudi Arabia scores high on this dimension (score of 95) which means that people accept a hierarchical order where everyone has a place in society.  Usually this needs no further justification by the institutions that hold the power. Hierarchy within an institution or organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, where centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do, and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.  In comparison, the U.S. has an overall society scores 40.

The Masculinity dimension refers to how a society adheres to the traditional values of male and female roles – with the man likely to be the provider and the woman the care giver.  Men are expected to be assertive, strong, and the defenders – women are expected to be the nurturers.  So, there is a distinct role differentiation between men’s work and women’s work.  However, a low masculine society does not mean that gender roles are reversed – they are simply blurred – and this is an important distinction.  Women can be assertive; men can be sensitive.

However, if we compare the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is actually higher on this scale (62) than Saudi Arabia (60).  How could that be?  Women can run for office, drive, and decide where they will study and when they will travel.  Women are assertive, run companies, and make their own decisions.  Then if the theory of cultural dimensions is supposed to elucidate central tendencies why is there an apparent contradiction?

Cultures are complex and cultures are paradoxical.  We see contradictions everywhere.  So, we need to look at both the Power Distance and the Masculinity dimensions together.  With a lower PD ranking (40) the norm for people from the U.S. is to expect there to be less distance (hierarchy) between people with the belief that inequality is wrong and that the gaps must be closed.  Remember, norms are the accepted and expected ways of behaving in a given society.  Far from perfect, the U.S. has disparities regarding such critical concerns of race and socioeconomic status, and equal pay for women; however, the difference is the belief that everyone should be equal and have the right to fightthe institutional practices that keep power in play.  The high power distance within the Saudi culture means that institutional practices enforce directives to widen the gap between genders.

A key takeaway for culture learning is this: It is possible to look at societies and generalize certain practices based upon the scientific study of sociocultural norms.  In this example we looked at power distance and masculinity dimensions of culture and their affect on women and voting in Saudi Arabia.  Understanding these cultural dimensions can help us make sense, non-judgmentally, about the differences between societies.

What insights do you have regarding these issues discussed in today’s blog?  Do you see it in a different way?  What is your experience with Saudi culture/s?

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