Working women? Not in the Arab world

Poll finds wide public support for female employment, but few actually have jobs.

Druse women boxing apples in Buqata_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Druse women boxing apples in Buqata_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
By overwhelming margins, young people in the Arab world think women should be allowed to hold any job they are qualified for. But in practice women are not given the same educational opportunities as men and far fewer actually enter the workforce.
Those are the findings of a survey by the Gallup polling organization released on Monday. It found that among young people aged 23 to 29 in 22 Middle Eastern and North African countries, 70% of the men and 82% of the women polled favored equal opportunity.
But the equality does not reach the office cubicle or university lecture hall. The same survey found that less than a third of the women hold jobs, compared with more than 80% of the men. In education, too, the gap is yawning: Across the Arab world only half the female population had a secondary education or better while 63% of the men had one.
The gender gap represents a huge loss for the Arab world because it deprives the region’s economy of the labor and skills of half the population. It is also a political problem as the double-digit unemployment for young men and women that is the norm in the Arab world has been cited by analysts as a factor in the Arab Spring unrest.
Overall, the female labor force participation rates at 25% of the population of working-age women are about half the world average and the lowest among other regions, according to the World Bank.
The Gallup survey cites several factor holding back women in the job market. Women in the Arab world have fewer resources like legally mandated maternity leave and easy access to daycare that would enable them to juggle household and work responsibilities. Laws on sex discrimination are poorly enforced.
They also face a glass wall because unemployment is high all across the Arab world labor market. The economies of the Middle East and North Africa, even when they were growing quickly, failed to provide enough jobs for men or women. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says the Middle East and North Africa are the only two regions of the world where unemployment is estimated to exceed 10%. Among young people, the rate is more then 26%.
The ratio of female to male unemployment rates in most regions exceeds 1.0, but in the Middle East and North Africa the regional ratio was as high as 2.3 in 2011, it estimates.
The job gender gap and its causes vary around the region. Among the highest-income countries the difference between men and women is the widest, with just 28% of the young women employed, compared with 81% of the men. In the poorest countries, the differential narrows to 36% to 81%.
But the education gap, ironically, disappears in the region’s richest countries. More women in the age group (80%) have a secondary or better education than men (79%). While their prospects for entering the workforce are higher in middle-income and low-income economies, women are less likely to have advanced education credentials. In middle income economies, just 54% have more than nine years of education (versus 6% for men) and in low-income economies just 33% have it (versus 48% for men).
The survey was based on face-to-face interviews with 7,670 young adults conducted in the spring and fall of 2011.
Arab women in Israel have lower labor force participation rates than almost anywhere elsewhere in the Arab world. Yossi Tamir, executive director of the Tevet Employment Initiative, says that has to do with the lack of jobs in agriculture, which in Israel comprises only a tiny part of the economy. Lack of public transportation and social attitudes create barriers to finding jobs in other sectors.
“It’s really a severe problem,” he told The Media Line. “They have the ability [to work] and an increasing number have higher education, so they can be moved into the labor force.”
The ILO report published in January pointed to North Africa as the home of the world’s worst unemployment rates for young people. Overall, the rate stood at 27.1% and for young women at 41%.
“The situation for young women is particularly worrisome, given that there are only very few who are actually either working or looking for work,” the ILO commented, noting that the female youth labor force participation rates in North Africa was as low as 8.9% in 2010.
Tara Vishwanath, an economist for the World Bank, worries that whatever progress women have made in recent year is being jeopardized by the Arab Spring. On the one hand, financially hard-pressed governments, whose sprawling bureaucracies have long been a source of jobs for women graduates, are no longer able to hire. On the other hand, the growing power Islamist movements threaten to roll back hiring women.
“Throughout the region, there is a concern that efforts to advance women’s rights may be halted, and even reversed, as new governments come to power,” Vishwanath wrote in a blog posting March 9.
Not everyone thinks the situation for women is as bleak as the numbers suggest. Hazami Barmada, chief executive of Al-Mubadarah: Arab Empowerment Network, said in response to Vishwanath’s posting that many women are working or are self-employed in the informal economy and don’t show up in official statistics.
“There are many thriving networks of women-owned businesses, namely in the service and home goods sector. In our work … we are learning about many great initiatives of women that are sadly being marginalized by studies such as this!” she said.