The opening paragraph of a recent article from The Financial Times reporting on the workforce impact potential of women compared the billion women who could be entering the workforce in the next decade to the billion-plus populations of India and China in regards to the significance on the global economy. India and China are large emerging markets that have already begun to stimulate the global economy. Women as a whole could essentially deliver the same type of impact…but that is only if they are able to actually join the workforce.
The MENA region was specifically highlighted as a region that would greatly benefit from this re-distribution of the workforce – estimating that the UAE could see a 12% growth in GDP and the Egyptian economy could grow by 34%.
Not to mention the “spillover effects” of women in the workplace outside of direct economic benefits. The Third Billion Index which tracks statistical data about women in the workplace throughout the world has found a “strong correlation between women’s economic participation and general indicators of growth and wellbeing, such as per capita GDP, literacy rates, and infant mortality.”
With all these potential positive outcomes, it seems implausible that countries wouldn’t want to encourage their women to work. But, it seems in many MENA countries, women are excluded from the workplace for a variety of reasons – traditional values regarding gender roles, religious influence, and unstable labor markets are a few reasons.
In Saudi Arabia, the unemployment rate for women (34%) is disproportionately higher than for men (7%) and 40% of the 86% of women who receive unemployment benefits have college degrees. Saudi Arabia has been making strides in education their women. King Abdullah has set up multitudes of scholarships for young people to study throughout the world and Saudi Arabia’s number of universities has doubled in the last few years. There is even a women only university currently serving 37,000 students.
Yet, the religious views regarding gender roles have severely limited women’s employment prospects. In Islam, unrelated women and men do not associate. This value has led to explicit gender segregation in most facets of life from shopping to banks to coffee shops. Although it appears that Saudi Arabia is moving towards modernization with its increase in education for women, the missing piece is the application of this education in the form of jobs.
Qatar is faced with the same challenges as Saudi Arabia. They have more female college graduates than male yet only 35% of the workforce is women. Qatar does have policies that help empower women such as laws regulating maternity leave and gender equality but the traditional views of gender roles and the forbidden nature of mixing sexes also influences women’s unemployment. The balance of family and professional life is stressed and many women are faced with disapproval by their families should they choose a job outside of the standard fields (administration, clerical, education).
Empowering women – not only in the workplace – but in their everyday lives is the key to increasing their economic involvement. This will not be an easy process by any means. Undoing years of segregation and inequality will be difficult. Culturally, mindsets will need to shift and re-frame what a workplace looks like and how men and women function in it, together.
The economic and social implications would be incredibly rewarding for the MENA region should women be able to fully participate in the workforce. It seems that change cannot come soon enough for the many educated women who are sitting at home, with the desire to participate and use the knowledge they have acquired, but with no job in sight.
The Financial Times also has a comprehensive report on women’s empowerment here.