Women’s participation in regional workforce poised for global advances

At the end of the Second World War, western economies had common gender characteristics with many Arab countries today.

Women’s employment was discouraged and in some cases banned after a woman got married (“the marriage bar”). Working outside the home was considered to be incompatible with social norms and cultural values.

In no European country was fertility less than 2.5 children per woman in 1950. Female enrolment in education, especially in universities, was low. The wage gap yawned wide because of the extreme concentration of women in low-pay occupations (cleaners, salespersons, clerical workers) and lack of opportunities for promotion (“men don’t like to be told what to do by women”). Women’s rights within the family and in the labour market were limited.

But things changed quickly in the course of more or less two decades. And without adopting a position of advocacy, it is reasonable to ask whether any-thing similar to the European trajectory is emerging, if not already in place, in Arab countries.

First, for the sake of comparison, let us look at how women’s role in the workplace was transformed in the West.

The recovery from world war and rapid economic growth amid conditions of full employment of men pushed wages up. This raised the opportunity cost of women staying at home, while at the same time employers found out that women were prepared to work for less than men: Women were perceived to be “secondary” workers and men the breadwinners.

Female enrolments in education reached those of men. Women entered the labour market in increasing numbers, started making inroads into “male” occupations and being promoted. Accommodative changes in legislation addressed unequal pay, discrimination and gender inequality within the family and public life. The gender wage gap narrowed and female employment kept increasing. By 1990, in no European country was fertility above the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman).

What were at face value culture-based, gender-divided societies in the 1950s have now been transformed to largely gender-neutral economies. Today few western households can survive on one wage and in many cases the main, if not the only, wage earner in the household is a woman. Maternity leave has been supplemented by “paternity” leave that can be taken up by a man.

And now to the Middle East of today. Several facts stand out at regional level, although there are significant country differences (for example, between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia).

Fertility rates in the Middle East and North Africa have plummeted from among the highest in the world in the 1950s (about seven children per woman) to less than three in 2013 and 1.5 in Lebanon. Using data from the World Bank’s 2012 report “Gender Equality and Development”, the decline can be highlighted with reference to Egypt, where the contraceptive prevalence rate rose from 21 per cent in 1980 to 50 per cent in 1996, and the number of children per woman declined from 5.1 to 3.3. And although Iran is not an Arab country, it took less than 20 years for the number of children born to a woman in Iran to decline from six to three, a process that took 100 years in the United States.

The average duration of Arab girls’ schooling was less than a year in 1950, while the ratio of girls to boys in school did not exceed 60 per cent in the 1960s. This ratio now stands at more than 95 per cent, having reached parity in many Arab countries. The female literacy rate went from 17 per cent in 1970 to 72 per cent in 2012, reaching 90 per cent among the youth. According to the World Bank, it took the US from 1870 until 1910 to increase primary enrolments among girls from 57 per cent to 88 per cent; Morocco achieved this much from 1997 to 2008. In higher education, females outnumber males by more than two to one in the GCC, according to Unesco’s 2012 report “Regional Profiles of the Arab States”. A parallel move has been to allow Arab women to enrol in studies previously considered inappropriate, such as engineering, from which they wre formerly barred by decree in some countries. These developments have been associated with postponing or reducing the rates of marriage.

Women’s employment in the Middle East was also an outlier in the 1950s. The regional female labour force participation rate stood at less than 12 per cent in the 1950s, which was only one-third of the global average of 36 per cent. It has since doubled. Today it is not that uncommon to see women occupying senior government posts, including ministerial appointments, as well as executive positions in the private sector or distinguished academic posts.

Examples of Arab women who have started breaking the proverbial glass ceiling abound in the region and abroad. A home-grown example is Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who became the UAE’s first female cabinet minister in 2004 with her appointment to the economy and planning post. At the international level, Arab women are increasingly occupying high-level positions in countries where they have been naturalised, as well as organisations such as the IMF, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Unesco, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and many other organisations.

The job is not yet complete.

The “Global Gender Gap Report 2014” prepared by the World Economic Forum shows Kuwait and UAE as the best-performing countries in the region from a gender perspective. Still, they have a lowly ranking of 113 and 115 of 142 countries covered, with Saudi Arabia ranked at 130 and Yemen remaining at the global bottom since 2006. Across the Arab region, the female labour force participation rate remains the lowest in the word, as measured by the ILO. Sex stereotyping and employment segregation are in many cases the norm. Personal status laws are still woven with tradition in complex ways. Arab women have far to go, but may need less than a generation to get to where women in other parts of the world are today.

Zafiris Tzannatos is an economist in Beirut

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