Complex Made Simple

MENA women can’t turn progress into employment

It would take women in the Middle East and North Africa 150 years to reach the same level of participation in the workforce as their peers in the rest of the developing world, according to a new a study by the World Bank. While this is an eye-catching figure, the facts are even more shocking.

By Kathleen Brooks, Research Director

While the rest of the world has taken steps to narrow the gap between men and women in the workplace, the MENA region has failed to follow suit. According to the report by the World Bank, while more than 50% of women in other developing regions are working, the figure is approximately 25% for women in the Middle East, and growth rates of female participation in the work place are depressing: a mere 0.17% annually over the last 30 years. Likewise, the gender unemployment gap has doubled in the last 25 years. So not only are women less likely to work, but those that do are also more likely to be unemployed.

But while religion and social conservatism is often attributed to high unemployment rates for women, this isn’t the whole story and it is in sharp contrast to the overall social progress women have made across the region in recent years. Literacy and infant mortality rates are all significantly lower, and the number of women in tertiary education now outnumbers men. So why can’t women convert improved levels of education into jobs?

This is a complex problem. While part of the reason is that women in the Middle East sometimes do have specific social and cultural barriers to working, such as permission from a male guardian and restrictions on the type of work they can perform and the number of hours they can do, it also highlights a wider issue that affects both genders: the high level of overall unemployment in the region. Due to youthful populations the MENA needs to create 200 million jobs just to keep unemployment levels constant.

As the World Bank points out, the Arab Spring has highlighted to the world the frustrations of young men and women who aren’t able to exercise their full potential and find jobs after years of education. These problems can topple governments and cause social turmoil, so it is imperative that new regimes and old alike take this opportunity to address not just the pace of job creation, but also the extra challenges faced by young women who want to work.

It could also reap political benefits: women who work can spend more on healthcare and education for children, which can take the weight off the state to provide these services. Added to that, if women were properly engaged in the workplace then economic growth levels could rise.

But huge challenges lie ahead. The Arab Spring has been an opportunity to sweep away the cobwebs and get social problems out into the open. Now old and new regimes alike have to implement reform and reduce the legal restrictions on women in the workplace.

This is a tricky problem to solve, but governments would be wise to heed the World Bank’s advice. Women have traditionally been employed in the public sector, but if internships and scholarships are provided for roles in the private sector then women could have a more broad-based access to the work place.

In the current environment, the MENA region, especially the oil-rich states, are at risk of boosting public sector spending to try and get through this crisis and ending up seeing mediocre results. If public spending was spent on child care and setting up flexible options for women to balance work and family life, as the World Bank suggests, then the results could be stellar and unemployment levels would have a real chance of falling.

So while sovereign debt levels around the world coming under greater scrutiny, getting women to work, especially in the private sector, can reap political as well as social dividends for the MENA states.