In 2013 Saudi Arabia is planning to complete a new industrial center open exclusively to women near the city of Hofuf. The hope for this center to provide opportunities for the many educated women in Saudi Arabia who are having trouble establishing careers in the male-dominated workplace. At this point, 60 percent of Saudi college graduates are women but 78 percent of those women are unemployed due in part to complicated policies that make it simpler to hire men. For example, women are not allowed to deal directly with the government and are required to use a male colleague as an in-between. In such an environment, a man-dominated workforce isn’t surprising.

Many in the international community, however, are questioning the effectiveness of establishing a separate industrial center for women. For one thing, it’s possible that this separation might enable even more gender discrimination in work environments outside of the center. The center would, however, continue to be gender-integrated.

As we all learned back in middle school when studying the civil rights movement, “separate but equal” rarely works out to actually be equal. More often, one separated group is made to be inferior. The working conditions in Hofuf will not be entirely equal to those in other parts of Saudi Arabia and this presents two potential problems. If the women’s industrial center is superior to others across the country, men will be denied access to a real chance for economic development, allowing women to pull ahead economically. And, if conditions in Hofuf are inferior, women may feel as though it is the only employment option available, forcing them to settle. This is especially a concern if potential employers take the attitude that if women have their own place exclusively for them, they can go there to work and not take jobs that men need to support their families.

On the other hand, this separate industrial center could provide much-needed opportunities for Saudi women. Experienced working women will have a chance to be immediately in charge of their own businesses instead of fighting for years to break Saudi Arbias strict the glass ceiling. Even in America women are struggling to make it to the top levels — only 39 companies out of the Forbes 100 are headed by female CEOs. Having their own center, free from at least internal gender discrimination, if not from their society’s underlying inequalities, will open up new opportunities for women at top levels.

Even if this separate but equal solution doesn’t quite follow the principles of feminism and civil rights, at least it gives women who want the chance to perhaps become financially independent . A similar compromise was reached in America before the top universities began allowing women to enroll, with the formation of exclusively female college such as Smith and Bryn Mawr Colleges. These schools enabled women to prove that, given the right resources and opportunities, they can do just as well as men. As a gender-segregated industry is not seen as a permanent solution but a stepping-stone on the way to gender equality across integrated workplaces.

In an ideal world, women would not have to fight to prove they are worthy of equal employment. However, this is not an ideal world, and sometimes less-than-perfect solutions are necessary to address the issues at hand. Industrial centers like the one outside Hofuf are an imperfect compromise, but they are a compromise that may ultimately lead to greater opportunities for Saudi women.

Mary Gallagher can be reached at mkgall@umich.edu.

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