Traditionalist thinking continues to hold women back
Japan was recently rocked by a scandal involving one of its most prestigious medical universities, when it was revealed that the university was deliberately discriminating against female applicants. The school admitted it had manipulated and cut down women’s entrance exam scores on the grounds that they were most likely to leave the profession after getting married and having children.
The score-rigging ensured that the ratio of females to males who passed the national medical exam remained at 30 percent for 20 years. Making matters worse, investigations also revealed that the school accepted bribes to inflate male scores. Despite the public apology, the university still attempted to justify that accepting more women could eventually lead to a staffing shortage. That justification fell on deaf ears.
This scandal only reemphasized an incontestable sexism problem in Japan, despite the government’s efforts to increase enrollment rates in higher education and in economic participation. This is also not unique to Japan. News reports are not short of cases in almost all sectors, both private and public, which demonstrate the level of discriminatory behavior against women. Google, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs have all recently been sued for alleged gender bias.
In most of the Arab world, gender bias against women in schools or in the workforce is not a novel argument. The reality is that discrimination against women still exists and is a real problem. Gender discrimination in Arab societies cannot be understood only from the broader context of Arab culture and traditions; there are common features that tend to bind the whole region with the same attitudes and practices.
The point here is not to delve into specific institutional cases of discrimination, for that is well known and, for the most part, legislative barriers are being introduced to achieve more equal rights for women in both the workforce and in education. What impedes progress, however, is rather the traditionalist, and sometimes patriarchal, thinking entrenched in most societies. It is the sexist attitudes and behavior behind the legal frameworks that are the problem. They sometimes tend to be stronger than religion and law in shaping societal practices and how they move forward.
This form of discrimination is so subtle that we almost fail to notice it. It has come to the point where it has become common behavior. In fact, most women do not even realize it when it happens to them. In higher education, for example, it is without doubt that women’s education levels have increased substantially in recent years, often superseding that of men. In the UAE, more than 70 percent of Emiratis in federal higher education institutions are women. As for their participation in the labor market, the percentage of women who work has generally risen in all Arab countries recently. Despite that fact, women still face discriminatory acts on a daily basis.
It is women who are often asked at job interviews if they are married. And, if they are, do they have children or are they planning to have any? No man is ever asked if he is planning to have children.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
Here is an example: It is women who are often asked at job interviews if they are married. And, if they are, do they have children or are they planning to have any? No man is ever asked if he is planning to have children and, according to my understanding of biology, it takes two to make a child. Women are also most likely to be passed over for promotions if they are pregnant or have just given birth. It is certainly very difficult for women to secure new jobs or change jobs while pregnant. Their decision-making is also called into question depending on the time of the month. They are also most likely to be judged based on the way they dress and look. Recruiters for certain jobs, such as sales or front desks, specifically want to hire good-looking women.
According to the World Economic Forum, men are still paid much more than women and their earnings are increasing more rapidly. The argument in the Arab world is that men are the sole breadwinners of families. We don’t take into account the plurality of family units that may consist of independent women, who may be divorced or widowed but don’t want to or cannot rely on anyone else for income. Women are more likely to face verbal and physical harassment, and are less likely to file a complaint as a result of it.
There are still fewer women in high-ranking and leadership positions than men, including in government and especially in the private sector. Women are still mainly appointed to, rather than promoted to, leadership positions. They still struggle to balance between family and work and are often left feeling guilty when they choose one over the other. Most women who work are relegated to traditionally feminized sectors or are employed by the government, which is deemed socially proper. We must not assume women’s family-work balance on their behalf, but instead ensure that they compete on an equal footing, with equal career growth opportunities.
Women around the world are an underutilized economic force. Much has been done to change the legal frameworks and improve the economic, political and social environments for women. While such legislation is needed, it is the regressive views and attitudes toward women that are changing very slowly, and this is what requires our immediate attention.
• Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik