Economist Jennifer Peck '06 Works to Boost Employment of Women in Saudi Arabia

Jennifer Peck '06

“I’ve met a lot of really talented and inspiring Saudi women, and many have a strong vision of where the Kingdom is going and how they can shape its future, despite the obstacles they face,” says Peck.

Assistant Professor of Economics Jennifer Peck ’06 is part of a team of academics working to boost employment for Saudi Arabian women, an effort that resonates for her personally and professionally.

Peck lived in Saudi Arabia until she was 14, and she has collaborated with the Kingdom’s labor ministry since her postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

"I’ve met a lot of really talented and inspiring Saudi women," she says, "and many have a strong vision of where the Kingdom is going and how they can shape its future, despite the obstacles they face."

In an article on the team, including Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Claudia Goldin of Harvard University, The New York Times notes that while Saudi Arabia is flush with oil, only 60 percent of its men and 11 percent of its women work.

The Saudi labor ministry enlisted Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to help raise those numbers and reduce its dependence on foreign workers. The effort has included quota policies, education and training, and unemployment insurance, in the process “really creating a path for women into the workforce,” says Peck, whose research has focused on the gender gap.

The Saudi government hopes to double the number of working women in the next several years. The Kingdom's traditional views on women present a hurdle, notes the Times, including the restrictions that prevent them from driving.

But that ground may be shifting. Peck says it’s “fascinating” to see how much things have changed since she left Saudi Arabia for high school in 1999.

“There are more and more Saudi women at the highest levels in academia, business, and government, and the population has become extremely well-educated,” she says, citing a successful women’s liberal arts college in Saudi Arabia that Marcia Grant '60 helped to create.

The project is in the data-gathering phase, with researchers analyzing the efficacy and effects of particular programs. In August, the labor ministry brought Peck and other researchers to Riyadh to meet with not just policymakers but those involved in the details of day-to-day operations.

“The engagement and partnership with the labor ministry has been great,” says Peck, in contrast to projects for which obtaining access to data is difficult. “We have gotten tons of support from them.”

Peck returned to the Kingdom in January to help assess how well offering job search skills and basic professional training to Saudi women improves their chances for landing work.

“Because they have historically had such low labor force participation rates, there seems to be a significant knowledge gap in terms of how to search for a job and to succeed in a professional environment,” she says. “It’s useful to see what sorts of interventions can ease the transition.”

Peck studied Honors economics and Greek at Swarthmore, then earned a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. She became a postdoctoral research fellow at the Kennedy School and a research associate at the Center for Complex Engineering Systems, a collaboration between MIT and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

At Swarthmore, Peck teaches introductory and environmental economics, and she hopes to offer a course relating to Middle East economics. She included a student experienced with the geographic information system on a quota study she conducted with Conrad Miller of Princeton this spring.

“Any type of major empirical project like this presents opportunities for students,” she says. “I would love to incorporate more of their skills and perspectives.”