Reading Lean In in Jordan

So technically, I was not physically in Jordan when I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. But I am Jordanian, born and bred, and that is the prism through which I digested the Lean In journey.

Like many women who have read the book, I wholeheartedly relate to the gender-based social phenomena Sandberg describes. Having worked in government and in sports (two largely male-dominated fields, especially in the Arab world), I found myself nodding, smirking and sighing at Sandberg's candid anecdotes. In fact, it was somewhat reassuring that Facebook's COO has stumbled upon gender-driven bends and turns that are alarmingly familiar to my own personal experience.

As I reflect further into Sandberg's valuable advice to professional women starting from 'sitting at the table' and speaking out to 'not leaving before leaving,' I could not stop myself from bringing this discussion home, to the Jordanian context.

Sandberg's push for women to lead certainly reverberates in Jordan's socio-cultural and socio-economic setting, but it can only go so far.

In the United States, more than half of American women are active in the labor force. This is not the case in Jordan. The figures speak for themselves.

Jordan boasts one of the highest female literacy rates in the region (89%) and high rates of female university enrollment (more than 51% of students in higher education are girls). However, women's participation in the Jordanian labor force is snail pacing. Official figures indicate that in 2012, a mere 14.1% of women of working age were actively participating in the labor market.

Moreover, female unemployment rates have barely budged between 2000 and 2012 (21% and 19.9% respectively).

That's not to say that we have not witnessed Jordanian women leaders emerge in the last two decades. A handful of women have been appointed to higher governmental posts, women were elected to parliament (induced by a quota), and there is a growing number of women owned business leaders.

However, those represent a small percentage and thus far, the majority of our educated and employable women are unable to make this transition from education to work. There are certainly many forces at play impeding this development ranging from cultural norms in relation to women's role in society (a wife, a mother and caretaker) to legal and structural obstacles.

"There are many cultural factors restricting women's freedom of choosing her place and type of work," noted Asma Khader, one of Jordan's leading woman activists and General Secretary of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, in my brief Facebook exchange with her. "Women's traditional role at home also adds pressure making it difficult for them to work," she adds.

Khader's assessment is echoed by some of my Jordanian friends struggling with socio-cultural pressure.

"TOO MANY women drop out of the labor force after they get married," expressed one Jordanian "Leaning In" friend. Social pressures also persist for those 'marathoners' who don't quit after marriage; "My mother often tells me to find a part time job in order for me to balance my job with my role as a wife and future is quite discouraging," she adds passionately.

Hannah Schiff who has published findings on her assessment of women and work in Jordan last year points to the very same stumbling blocks. She concludes that women do not take that step to work because of "intra-household gender norms and dynamic." In most cases, Schiff adds, it boils down to the "work-life balance."

So, should we just blame sexist cultural mindsets? They are certainly part of the story, but they do not explain the whole picture.

The World Bank's 2014 report entitled Women, Business and the Law, published this week, points to legal barriers and policies that limit women's economic opportunities.

Tragically, the report indicates that the Middle East and North Africa region have "changed the least since the 1960s," and while some "constraints have been removed... many restrictions remain."

An earlier study focused on Jordan, published by the European Training Foundation also demonstrates that "ambiguous legislation" and "lack of infrastructure" also hinder women from entering the workforce.

Back to Lean In

Jordanian women who have had generous opportunities to advance their careers and pushed through despite all pressures (I include myself in this group) should also start by raising their voices on the matter. Let us localize the Lean In discussion at all levels within Jordanian circles; government and non-government alike. There are great initiatives underway; in sport, film and art, and I applaud them. But they also need to work together.

We need to roll up our sleeves and get to the bottom of this gender gap in employment and prescribe solutions accordingly.

Needless to say, there are tireless efforts by a plethora of organizations (official and mostly non-official) continuously ploughing through to improve conditions for women. But, again, the figures speak for themselves. More has to be done.

Some may question, whether this is even worth pursuing amidst a difficult geo-political climate that Jordan faces today?

Absolutely. Closing the gender gap in employment should be a top priority, precisely because we are living tough times in the neighborhood.

The economic uncertainty of the post 'Arab Spring' revolutions presents an opportunity to invest in promoting employment opportunities for women, regardless of the barriers in place -- be it cultural or otherwise. Women can and should play a central role in shaping the economy and society of tomorrow. It is a key ingredient for economic growth and stability.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from moving beyond girls and women's education in Jordan to more active economic participation. We have already walked half the walk by investing and succeeding in raising the level of female education. Now, let us walk the rest of the journey, and faster. It will be a bumpy ride; but it certainly is worth it.

Let us Lean In, the Jordanian way.