Arab Women in the workforce: An ongoing struggle

In the Arab world, women continue to play a leading role in the households, despite the low participation in the labor market

Yara al-Wazir
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Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality. Here, we take a broad look at Arab women in the workforce.

Female participation in the workforce has increased at a rate of 0.17 percent per year over the past three decades, according to the World Bank. With only 25 percent of Arab women actively participating in the labor market, the fight for equal employment rights and improved female participation in the labor market is an on-going struggle.

Female participation in the workforce is trailing well below the international average, and proves a notable discrepancy from the average of developing countries, where women actually dominate the workforce

General suffering of the labor market in the region

The labor market in the Middle East is generally plagued with over-subscription. The demand is growing at an accelerated rate, with more young people entering the work force. Meanwhile, both the private and public sector are struggling to meet the demand and supply enough jobs.

This affects both men and women; however, this is when mobility becomes one of the barriers to women entering the market. Culturally, it is acceptable for the male dominant to uproot the family for a job, or to commute to work. In some countries, such as Egypt, it is even considered acceptable for men to work in the Gulf countries, leaving their families behind in Egypt. Cultural unacceptance of female mobility is yet another obstacle that Arab woman face when attempting to enter the job market. The job search is limited to jobs within walking, or culturally acceptable commuting distance.

This fact is echoed with statistics that prove that the ratio of female participation compared to their male counterpart in the workforce is at its lowest in countries where mobility is in fact limited, not just by cultural norms, but by political and safety concerns – this is the case in Yemen and Palestine. In Yemen, it is 5 percent compared to 85 percent, whereas in Palestine it is 18 to 25 percent. Comparatively to more politically stable and safe countries such as the UAE, the ratio is a lot closer, reaching 45 percent compared to 65 percent of female: male participation.

Qualification over culture

One of the greatest obstacles that impede women from joining the workforce is the cross between culture, religion and industry needs. This combined with the absence of solid and practiced anti-discrimination policies have two effects on women: discouragement and alienation from attempting to participate in the workforce.

Job advertisements that exclude women who don’t abide by certain religious practices, such as wearing a full face cover, can be alienating for some.

Legislation and the role of international organizations

The issue has not gone unaddressed, especially by international organizations. The United Nations has special projects commissioned to help introduce women into the workforce. The government in Morocco, along with NGOs, runs microfinance programs that help women start up their own companies.

These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, with the World Economic Forum recognizing the efforts. Ultimately, female participation in the workforce has great economic incentive for all participants: families, local governments and culture.

Addressing the gender gap in participation in the workforce would increase the income per capita of individual households, therefore encourage spending and economic growth, leading to more job creation. Fiscal policy, including taxation and social benefits is a tool governments can use to further encourage women to join the workforce.

In the Arab world, women continue to play a leading role in the households, despite the low participation in the labor market. Household chores, as simple as laundry and childcare aren’t accounted for in GDP or employment statistics, yet they must be given some form of recognition. Rebuilding the labor model, and recognition of smaller jobs, undeclared jobs and opportunities may create an alternate image of women in the region.

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