How to grow MENA women’s labor force participation
There is a women in leadership deficit in the private sector of the Middle East and North Africa region. This is the finding of a recent Middle East Women’s Initiative study by the Middle East Program of the Wilson Center.
At an average of 19 percent compared to a global average of 46 percent, the region has one of the lowest levels of female labor force participation, according to the World Bank. The bank’s data also indicates that fewer than one in four businesses in the MENA region are owned by a woman, compared to one in three globally. Small and medium-sized businesses and startups are very important to economic development and make up a large portion of the gross domestic product of any country. Hence, facilitating the right environment can empower women to expand this development and growth.
There are, of course, differences between the countries in the region and even between provinces within each country. However, the study sheds light on some common challenges and obstacles. One of the key findings of the study in trying to explain the gender gap is that, despite significant progress in education for women, particularly tertiary education, they still lag behind in business and entrepreneurship and that is due to the quality of education. Curricula have not kept pace with market needs and the required skills, especially for girls and particularly in terms of digital skills, soft skills and critical thinking.
A common attitude is a preference for public sector jobs because they are considered “safe,” even if they pay less. But government administrations are already bloated and the private sector is not ready to accommodate the large number of unemployed youths.
On the other hand, there are cultural and structural barriers, such as gender discrimination in salaries, hiring processes and promotions, as well as the issue of harassment, despite reforms to anti-discrimination laws. The problem is in the implementation. Mechanisms are needed that are transparent and that enable a shift in the sociocultural mindset and attitudes toward women.
Other enabling work environment factors include providing childcare and flexible working hours, as well as safe and accessible transportation, which is a major hindrance to women not only in terms of job opportunities, particularly in low-paid and entry-level jobs because it takes a big chunk of their salary, but also regarding access to resources, education, healthcare and networking to advance their businesses. Furthermore, women entrepreneurs are not taken seriously and perceived to be less credible than men. Stereotypes and gender biases about the roles of women and their capabilities have discouraged women from starting and growing businesses.
Facilitating the right environment can empower women to expand their country’s development and growth.
Several countries in the region have succeeded in tackling these barriers and empowering women to realize their potential through programs, initiatives and laws. However, the study points out that countries tend to make progress on fundamental enablers — education, legal rights to work and freedom of movement, among others — before considering opportunity and inclusion or equality and security within each of these enablers. It is important to realize that these elements are interconnected and a change in one will affect the others in a ripple effect.
A quality education can help women access information, resources and job opportunities in the formal sector with better pay and job security. With equal legal rights to work, in pay and in hours, as well as financial resources and assets, they will be more likely to participate in the labor force, which will give them the financial independence and experience to start a business. Freedom of mobility in a safe environment is also important in giving women the confidence and independence to participate in the economy, run and grow their businesses and create networks.
A major challenge faced by the researchers for this study, and often repeated by others, is the scarcity of reliable, updated data in the MENA region with regards to women and entrepreneurship, including case studies and success stories. Research, data collection, data management and data sharing are essential to making policies and strategies. Not including or reflecting women’s and girls’ experiences or views in the data available, if collected at all, makes it unrepresentative and inaccurate. It makes women invisible, unaccounted for.
Interestingly, with artificial intelligence now being a hot topic, even AI is biased because it relies on “available data,” which itself is biased. A recent search by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology of an AI imaging software tool returned an average of 1 percent of images of women when using the prompts “imagine entrepreneur,” “imagine inventor” and “imagine software engineer.”
The gender data gap is a serious problem worldwide and it is critical because it feeds and deepens other gaps. The lack of data can lead to misguided policy measures, unintended consequences, the reinforcement of gender biases and stereotypes, and the prevention of new perspectives. As of June 2022, UN Women has 42 percent of the gender data it needs to monitor the gender-specific dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is important to have more research and data available on women in the MENA region to design, implement and measure policies and outcomes that are more representative and accurate. More and diverse women’s voices and views need to be heard. Also, more networking, mentoring and exchanges of experiences across sectors and regions is needed to provide women with opportunities to learn, benefit and grow their businesses.
Providing women with the opportunities and enabling factors to work in the formal economy can boost their skills and confidence, preparing them to develop their own ideas and pursue business opportunities.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah.