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Unlocking the Potential of Young Working Women in the Middle East and North Africa

October 17, 2018

Fatima AlRiami at work

This article is posted on October 17 as a Global Ethics Day contribution from Education for Employment.

Fatima AlRiami already had four children in 2016 as the civil war ravaging Yemen escalated. Years before the conflict began, after too many negative experiences in hospitals, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor. But she was married in her teens, before finishing her basic education. When her mother and husband supported her continuing with her studies, she felt lucky—many of her friends never had that option. She had glowed with pride when, in 2017, she graduated from university as a certified midwife.

As the conflict escalated, what few jobs were there disappeared—including the one that had enabled Fatima's husband to keep their family afloat. When he traveled abroad for work, Fatima launched her own job search, only to be told repeatedly that she did not have the requisite experience. She also encountered strong gender bias. "The biggest difficulties I faced were because I'm a woman. I'm forbidden to speak with men even if I'm looking for a job. Also, there are men who exploit women in need and harass them."

The employment outlook for women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) differs dramatically across countries, classes, and communities, and no single story or statistic could contain this complexity. But there is a clear regional trend: Women are dramatically underrepresented in the workplace, with only 24 percent employed—far lower than the 60 percent across OECD countries.

Fatima's experience sheds light on some of the common factors that women face in trying to break into the labor market. Her eventual success in doing so, and what happened as a result, show the immense potential of women in MENA to create a major economic and societal impact through work.

Why are there so few Women in MENA's Workforce?

1. Lack of Opportunity:

With youth unemployment rates consistently above 25 percent, MENA is the most difficult region on the planet for youth of either gender to secure employment. Slow economic growth and low rates of foreign direct investment, in combination with one of the world's fastest growing youth populations, mean that more young people are competing for insufficient job opportunities. By some estimates, the region would need to create 100 million jobs just to sustain current employment rates.

While many governments focus on job-creation schemes, young women are often at a particular disadvantage, as such schemes rarely take into account gender diversity when structuring incentives for investment or industry growth. As a result, governments often support industries that traditionally employ few women, or unknowingly create conditions that reduce the likelihood that women will benefit from newly-created job opportunities. For example, locating economic development zones far from residential areas increases the complexity and length of commutes, which often makes it disproportionately more difficult for women to apply for and retain jobs there. Evaluating policy proposals through a gender lens create more promising opportunity structures for young women.

2. Poor Preparation:

Despite increased levels of education over the past several decades, youth of both genders are not necessarily equipped with the skills they need to succeed in a job search or on the job itself. Counterintuitively, unemployment rates in many MENA countries increase with educational attainment. While women's access to education has increased dramatically in the past several decades and more women than men attend university, according to the World Bank, these gains have not translated into greater labor market participation. More closely aligning education with labor market needs, and encouraging young women to study growing fields, could reduce the impact of this skills gap.

3. Mindsets, Stigma, and Bias:

In most countries in the region, traditional social values discourage women from entering the workforce or remaining employed beyond their marriage or the birth of their first child. Those women who do choose to work often select from a constrained set of options, with certain industries or roles considered 'unsuitable' for women's employment. Family or community expectations may make it difficult for young women to work in jobs that require extended hours, physical labor, long commutes, or close proximity to male peers, for example. Many employers are also less likely to offer such opportunities to young women job seekers. Information campaigns aimed to challenge these biases and shift mindsets around 'acceptable' women's work, can encourage women's entry into fields previously off-limits.

Additionally, sexual harassment is a significant concern for women in many communities in the region. Improving legal frameworks that protect against harassment and providing safe and reliable transportation could remove this significant barrier to women's participation in the workforce.

4. Lack of Role Models and Networks:

A dearth of women in the workforce in some industries leaves young women job seekers with few relatable role models whose experiences suggest a pathway for achieving professional success in balance with other life goals such as family. Furthermore, because women's lifestyles are often more constrained than their male peers from a young age, from early on, women often miss out on networking opportunities that enable them to build professional contacts and the soft skills like communication and confidence that are factors in a successful job search. Professional and soft skills training, celebrating the stories of working women through the media, and creating more opportunities for young women to build their networks can help to close this gap.

5. Insufficient Workplace Accommodations:

Even when there are sufficient work opportunities that young women wish to pursue, logistical constraints often disproportionately affect women's ability to do so. For example, lack of access to childcare may make it impossible for young women in MENA to work after becoming mothers, given that they typically play the primary role in raising children. Offering childcare, work-from-home, and flex time can help more women balance family and professional demands.

Why Increasing MENA Women's Employment Matters

Beyond illustrating some of the challenges that young women face in entering the workforce, Fatima's experience also highlights the potential of women who do make it into the labor market.

Businesses and economies stand to gain significantly from higher levels of women's employment. McKinsey estimated that if women's labor force participation rates equalled that of men in MENA, the region could see an additional $2.7 trillion in GDP by 2025. In Fatima's case, after moving to Sana'a in 2016, she enrolled in a job training program at Education For Employment, which helped her to avoid many of the obstacles above by placing her directly into a job as a midwife when she completed the program. From there, her career took off. She excelled in hospital settings and eventually become a doctor affiliated with several health centers. In her current hospital, she oversees not just patient care, but also administration - from accounts and billing to staffing.

On a microscale, Fatima's job provides another means to support family health and wellbeing. Her husband is jobless and she is now the sole breadwinner, supporting both her own family as well as her in-laws. This is consistent with a World Bank report which indicates that "women's employment can significantly improve household income—by as much as 25 percent—and lead many families out of poverty."

Fatima's story also points to the societal benefits of greater women's employment. Fatima has become a community leader, helping to establish a national management and psychosocial support team to help address the health crisis in Yemen. Accredited by the national government, the team has gained support from over 40 local and international organizations.

Women's employment creates individual opportunity, economic growth, and positive ripple effects in communities across the region. With greater attention to the issue and investment in tangible steps to facilitate women's entry into the labor market, the region stands to gain immensely from the dynamism and skill of its young women.

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