We just posted a slideshow that highlighted powerful Arab women of the year. We all know they exist and they’re fully capable of taking the MENA region by storm.
More women around the world are seeking a higher education, including in the Middle East. Girls are earning better grades than men. More women than men are graduating from college. And in Jordan women have one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East at 97 percent.
But the fact is, these highly educated women in the Middle East are not transitioning into the workforce. Are gender roles being challenged enough, from their conception — in school when girls are growing up — all the way to their execution after college — when women get married, have kids, find other alternatives to occupy their time?
There’s a gap between female representation in the education system and the labor force. It’s apparent in the economically inactive population, with double the rates of unemployment in women versus men in Jordan (four times for youth). Of those, 70 percent of unemployed women have bachelor’s degrees, compared with 25 percent of unemployed men.
There needs to be improvements. And here are the problems:
Stringent gender roles still exist. A woman should have the right to decide whether she wishes to stay at home, or focus full-time on taking care of her children and husband. It’s a problem, however, when she has no other choice because she is surrounded by a society that doesn’t support her ambitions.
A study published by the Brookings Institution in September shows men these days in Jordan are less accepting than their fathers were about women working. That is an alarming trend. When the culture surrounding working women is moving backward in younger generations, there should be a change.
A lack of transition from education to the real world is inefficient. Getting educated in the Middle East, unfortunately, does not translate into having the necessary skills to operate in the working environment.
While this may not look like a women’s issue, it affects women the most because they now have higher rates of graduating college than men. Spending that money on an education should mean that they have the option of gaining a career, and making that money up, as a return.
There’s a “culture of shame” surrounding vocational careers. Many of the most common jobs in the Middle East — driving cabs, running businesses, working at a restaurant — have a “culture of shame,” said Merissa Khurma, a gender advisor for the USAID Jordan Fiscal Reform Project. “Sometimes there's family pressure to go in this direction when clearly our labor market needs more than that.”
Vocational degrees many can gain in a community college, which is less expensive and often more practical, don’t seem like a viable option in the Middle East.
Maybe a reason these options aren’t available is a lack of resources. But part of it may be a lack of demand. It’s all or bust: Those who are educated will want a blue-collar career, medicine or law, that brings honor to their families.
Men struggle with this as well, but residents in the Arab world will still see them behind the taxi wheels or selling shoes on the street. If there’s a taboo of women working in general, there’s certainly a greater taboo of women in jobs that aren’t so luxurious.
Some may think this isn’t a problem at all, that it’s protecting women from having careers nobody truly wants. But closing off an entire sector of middle-class occupations that could be a viable option for women is hurting the region’s potential.
“If you are not tapping into the potential of half of your population, there's clearly a problem,” Khurma said.
It would benefit the family, the community, not to mention the regional economy for women to be gaining access to anything that could lead to a more gender-equal labor market. “The ripple effect is huge,” Khurma added.
Women need support systems. “I was always encouraged to pursue what I want education-wise, career-wise,” said Khurma, Amman-born and graduate of Georgetown University in the US. “I think precisely because I was fortunate to have this support that I understand how important it is.”
The Brookings Institute reported a woman living in a household headed by her grandfather or father is more likely to join the workforce than a woman living with her brother or husband.
While some of it may be correlation, not causation — a woman living with her father might not have brothers, and therefore have to support her parents — the findings do make one question whether open-mindedness doesn’t necessarily run in younger generations.
A woman, without the support of her family, may not even take work into consideration, and that means men fill an important role.
“We cannot do this working in women-focused NGOs; the Jordanian man is part of that equation as well,” Khurma said.
So what still needs changing?
Laws that incentivize women to work would be a good start. But we know even financial compensation is not enough for a culture that is deeply rooted in gender roles. We’ve seen that in the example of Japan, a country that’s having a labor market crisis because half of their population is disinterested in working.
It all starts with education. Engrained gender roles begin in the womb, parental values, and in the school systems. Textbooks should contain both examples of male and female doctors, taxi drivers, businesspeople. Women and men should be teaching every age. Girls and boys should both have access to an equal number of sports.
Schools should offer counseling sessions for girls and their families, a crucial part of their chances of even thinking about having a career.
The Middle East is not alone in this issue — it’s a world problem. In third-world countries all across the globe, women have been forbidden, punished, sometimes even killed for seeking an education let alone a career. In first-world countries like the US, women are harassed on the Internet when they’re outspoken, and blamed for getting pregnant when they’re raped.
It’s important to remember that it’s not a matter of Islam but a matter of a male-dominated world, applying to every corner of the world. But as far as the Arab world goes, it has its own set of problems and it’s important to start small, with a change in mindset.
By Hayat Norimine
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