Investing in Young Women: A Path to Prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa

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$2.7 trillion.

This is the economic benefit that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could realize over the next ten years if women's labor force participation rises to equal that of men. With this change, the region could see a 47% rise in GDP over the next decade, according to a recent report. What's more, on a personal level, women's employment can foster the dignity and financial independence that transform individuals and families.

What's stopping us from getting there?

With over a quarter of the region's young people locked out of the workforce, there are few issues in MENA that have proven as intractable as youth unemployment. The situation is particularly bleak for young women: in some MENA countries, over 40% are unemployed.

If the MENA region is to recognize the potential economic windfall of women's employment, it is crucial that more young women enter and remain in the workforce. Fortunately, recent research points to concrete actions that employers, NGOs, governments and young women themselves can adopt to help more young women enter and stay at work.

First Jobs for Young Women in the Middle East & North Africa: Expectations and Reality, a research initiative and report from Education For Employment (EFE), Bayt.com and YouGov that was previewed at the Concordia Summit, focused specifically on young women in MENA to understand where their expectations around recruitment and workplace benefits might diverge from those of employers, and how the attitudes of each group might influence women's participation in the workforce.

Four promising areas for reducing barriers to work emerged:

1. First, we need to build better pathways into the working world.

Young women overwhelmingly felt that personal connections (known as wasta) are the most helpful factor in securing a job - significantly inhibiting their access to positions outside the reach of their family or social circles. National governing bodies and NGO initiatives, options that might help disconnected youth break through the barriers that the wasta system imposes, are not viewed as one of the more promising channels for securing a job. Internships, considered a springboard for employment in many parts of the world, were also not considered as a top way to get a job by young women in the region. Stronger collaboration between NGOs, education institutions and the business community could result in initiatives and internships that produce real results for young women.

2. Equipping job seekers with the right skills, information and expectations is equally important.

A university degree is no guarantee of employment for young women in the region. Of those surveyed, 48% with bachelor's degrees and 40% with higher university or professional degrees identified themselves as unemployed and looking for a job. Job seekers and employers alike see soft skills deficits as a barrier to employment. Young women's professional aspirations may be mismatched to market realities, too. Although SMEs are expected to comprise a significant portion of MENA's job growth, only 7% of young women job seekers surveyed indicated that they would most like to work in a small or medium local private company. Job opportunities, industry growth areas, salary benchmarks and sought after skills should be more widely communicated to women before and during university, or through post-education training programs, so they are well informed when undertaking a job search.

3. If we want to encourage more women to enter the workforce, the benefits and policies that employers implement should focus on what really matters to young women.

In seeking to increase women's employment, some employers are investing in policies that simply are not high priorities in the eyes of most young women employees, such as provision of female supervisors. At the same time, many employers are not offering elements like access to suitable and affordable transportation, or incentives like nursery or daycare facilities - all elements that young women surveyed saw as enablers of employment. Distressingly, a surprising percentage of young women are not aware if employers have policies in place to help them gain employment - although many employers do. Better communication mechanisms and attention to internal satisfaction are needed to ensure that needs and benefits information is shared between young women and employers.

4. Finally, it is important to raise awareness of the current demand for women employees in the workplace, and further increase this demand.

The majority of men and women believe women can make a positive impact to the bottom line, and approximately half of employers of both genders want to see more young women in the workplace. This is good news. But when considering the broader impact of young women's employment, only a small minority focused on the potential economic gains. Young women themselves appear unaware of the influence of women's employment on the economy. It is important that the economic and business benefit of young women's employment be advertised more broadly to both employers and young women themselves.

The current employment outlook for young women in the MENA region is sobering. Yet, the survey suggests reasons for optimism, as well. Perhaps most notably: young women cited challenges that were practical in nature, as opposed to more abstract constraints. There are tangible steps that governments, NGOs, employers and young women themselves can undertake to increase women's participation in the workforce. If they succeed, the impact of women on economies and societies across MENA could be profound.

First Jobs for Young Women in the Middle East & North Africa: Expectations and Reality is a research initiative from Education For Employment (EFE), Bayt.com and YouGov. You can learn more about the initiative and read the full white paper findings here.