Addressing the region’s gender gap in the workplace
Women in the Middle East and North Africa suffer from the ultimate paradox — arguably the most frustrating of them all: They are encouraged to get an education but not a job.
This means that after years of hard work, studying, learning and passing exams, a well-educated MENA woman might easily be left with no way to put her skills and knowledge to good use.
Or any use. Chances are she is entirely likely to have no way of using her expertise. Just less than one-quarter of the region’s women have a job — one of the lowest rates in the world — the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said.
Then there is the even more striking paradox: Women in many parts of the Arab world constitute clear majorities among university students.
The OECD issued a report on the barriers to women’s employment in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. All those countries, it pointed out, have demonstrated a “commitment to building more inclusive societies.” All six have reformed their constitutions to enshrine the principle of gender equality. All adhere to international conventions that safeguard women’s rights.
Yet, there is a substantial — and stubborn — gender gap in workplaces in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. With some differences, the gap prevails in the rest of the Arab world as well.
There are the missing female workers, of course, which is partly, as opinion polls indicate, the result of a collective mindset. Most people in many Arab countries see men as deserving priority hiring.
This mindset has not kept pace with deep societal changes in the region, including to some of its most conservative bastions. For instance, a recent report by France’s Institut Montaigne contextualised the changes in Saudi Arabia as follows: “Whereas only 52% of Saudi adult women were literate in 1992, that rate jumped to 92% in 2015.”
It said “access to higher education for Saudi women has evolved (15% in 1995, 61% in 2015) and was accompanied by an important fall in the fertility rate (6 children per woman in 1990, 2.7 in 2015.) This is indicative of the focus by women throughout the region on pursuing educational tracks and professional careers.
For women across the region, however, even when hired, there is a considerable pay gap with male colleagues. This is particularly so in the private sector. Then there is the difficulty women face in securing senior management roles in public and private sectors alike.
There are many reasons for this situation. In some cases, as in Egypt, Jordan and Libya, women need permission from their husbands or fathers to work. Measures aimed at protecting women end up limiting their work prospects. For instance, night work and hazardous employment are limited for women. Female workers are supposed to be allowed nursing time, day care and early retirement, none of which are financed by the state, except in Morocco.
Governments should remove the discriminatory legal provisions that hinder women’s participation in the workforce. They should monitor the gender gap to build awareness about the problem and the need to face it. There are good examples of progress made in this regard. Since 2015, the United Arab Emirates’ Gender Balance Council has, in collaboration with the OECD, developed a “Gender Balance Guide.” This provides benchmarks and suggests concrete measures to address the issue.
The absence of Arab women from the workplace is not just unfair to them. It deprives their countries of the higher economic growth rates that would ensue if all of society were engaged in the task of nation-building. It is an unfair and costly situation that needs to change.