President Emerita Peggy Williams Discusses Her Experience in Saudi Arabia

“I have always been a traveler, especially to unfamiliar places where you can be surprised by the differences but also by the common humanity that we share.” Saint Michael’s College trustee Peggy Williams reflects on her recent trip to Saudi Arabia where she and three other accomplished American women from academia led groups of Saudi university women in developing their leadership skills.

Williams had been invited by the Academic Leadership Center of the Ministry of Education, which hosted the first ever Women’s Leadership Conference in Riyadh. As former chair of the Commission on Women at the American Council on Education and current president emerita of Ithaca College, Williams had been invited to share her leadership background in academia, as well as her experience working for women’s advancement. “I’ve focused on women and leadership throughout my career. So this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to share what I have learned in a part of the world that has long been an interest of mine.” 

As excited as Williams was, she worried a bit about the cultural differences. “It was challenging to balance focusing on the conference program, while also being constantly careful I didn’t do something that might offend my hosts.” Such cultural differences were illustrated shortly after arriving when Williams and two of her American colleagues were invited to lunch by the vice rector of one of the area universities. After meeting their veiled female host in the hotel lobby, the women headed out to a waiting car. “I had fully expected the vice rector to take the keys from the valet and get in the driver’s seat,” Williams recalled. But the man standing beside the car was not the valet; he was their host’s male driver, a reminder to the Americans that it is against the law for women to drive in that country.

Williams added, “I love to swim, but as women, we were not even permitted to use the hotel pool—maybe the nicest hotel pool I have ever seen.” But when the conference began, the cultural differences faded to the background as Williams and her colleagues received an exceptionally warm welcome from the attendees and were embraced with a feeling of shared purpose.

“Once we were together behind closed doors, and had removed our headscarves and niqabs (veils), we were just women working together and sharing our knowledge and experience with incredibly warm, intelligent, and accomplished academics,” she said.

The fact that the Saudi system of higher education is based on that of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada facilitated an easy sharing of knowledge and intellectual dialogue. The five-day conference was attended by approximately 80 women, all with doctorates from the seven area institutions. The program focused on three broad themes: leadership skills and styles, effective communication, and career advancement.

One of the key points the American women stressed was the importance of building professional networks. In fact, they held themselves up as a model: “Three of us knew each other well professionally even before being contacted about the conference. We were a living example, demonstrating how valuable it is to support each other professionally.”

As she expected, Williams and her American colleagues were not only sharing their knowledge but were actively learning about their host society. Saudi Arabia has experienced a remarkable increase in women attending university over recent decades. “In fact, many Saudi women talked about having previously studied in the U.S. or other western countries.”

In 2010, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University was built—the largest women’s university in the world, with over fifty thousand enrollees. In addition, there are six other institutions in and around Riyadh that educate both men and women. These co-ed institutions are really two schools operating in parallel as one. The entire supporting structure is duplicated to ensure men and women do not attend classes or work together. “The cost implication of such a structure is staggering, especially when seen through an American lens of cost containment as a priority in higher education,” says Williams.

Another remarkable thing that the American women realized about their Saudi peers is that many of them are in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This is in stark contrast to the U.S., where there is wide concern for the lack of women pursuing study or careers in these fields. “Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to verify the impression and delve into what was driving that trend, but I hope to follow up to understand more about it,” says Williams.

But perhaps the biggest question that lingers for Williams centers around what will happen next. “This conference brought together a group of smart, ambitious women, all of whom were eager to both learn and teach,” she says. “It made me wonder: with the growing number of highly intelligent, academically accomplished women in a society that offers them so little professional opportunity, where will all that intellectual energy go?”