A job advert to recruit 30 female train drivers in Saudi Arabia has attracted 28,000 applicants, showing the scale of pent-up demand as the kingdom opens up more opportunities to women.
Spanish railway operator Renfe said on Wednesday an online assessment of academic background and English language skills had helped it to reduce the number of candidates by about a half, and it would work through the rest by mid-March.
The 30 women will drive bullet trains between the cities of Makkah and Madinah after a year of paid training.
Renfe, which said it was keen to create opportunities for women in its Saudi business, employs 80 men to drive its trains in the kingdom, and has 50 more under instruction.
Job opportunities for Saudi women have until recently been limited to roles such as teachers and medical workers, as they had to observe strict gender segregation rules. Women were not allowed to drive in the kingdom until 2018.
Female participation in the workforce has nearly doubled in the past five years to 33 per cent amid a drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open up the kingdom and diversify the economy. Women are taking up jobs once restricted to men and migrant workers.
But the proportion of women working in the kingdom was only around half that of men in the third quarter of last year, at 34.1 per cent, and female unemployment was well over three times higher than for men, at 21.9 per cent.
The percentage of women in Saudi Arabia's labour force rose sharply from 20 per cent in late 2018 to 33 per cent by the end of 2020, according to a Brookings Institution report.
Women's employment in the private sector grew at twice the rate of the public sector in 2019-2020, with 40 per cent growth in accommodation and food industries, 14 per cent in the manufacturing sector and 9 per cent in construction.