Why the Middle East and North Africa Need More Women in the Workforce... And What Can Be Done About It

There are many good reasons for tackling female workforce participation as a matter of priority in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The potential economic benefit of increased women's employment is striking. According to recent estimates, if women's participation in labor markets in the MENA equaled that of men's, the regional GDP could rise by 47% over the next decade, and the MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually ($2.7 trillion by 2025).

These numbers are too big and significant to ignore. But despite the work that has been done in combating gender discrimination in the MENA, women still face widespread challenges in entering the workforce. When it comes to labor force penetration of women, the World Bank predicts that at the current rate, it would take 150 years for MENA countries to reach the current world average.

Far from being a matter of unpreparedness for the job market or a lack of education (the ratio of female to male tertiary enrollment in many parts of the MENA region is impressive, with female students outnumbering male students by a significant margin), the unemployment rate among working-age women in the MENA, now standing at over 40% for some MENA countries, is a multifaceted problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later if we want to achieve the desired economic outcomes of having more women in the workforce.

But who is responsible for driving the inclusion of more women in the MENA workforce? Is it governments, NGOs, employers, or young women themselves? The answer is that everyone has a shared responsibility.

Findings from 'First Jobs for Young Women in the MENA: Expectations and Reality', a white paper created by Bayt.com, Education For Employment (EFE), and YouGov suggest that there are tangible steps that governments, NGOs, employers and young women themselves can undertake to increase women's participation in the workforce. These measures include negotiating and adjusting salaries to suit the needs of young women, offering on-site nursery and daycare facilities, and providing access to suitable and affordable transportation. The whitepaper provides a set of recommendations to better facilitate the employment of young women in the MENA. Changing employer perceptions:

The survey results indicated that although there is significant support among young women and employers for young women's participation in the workforce, challenges remain in many areas, including employer perceptions. 82% of female employers versus only 61% of male employers indicated that they personally support policies intended to drive the employment of young women. When asked how increasing the number of women in the workforce impacts an organization's bottom line, male employers were three times as likely as female employers to say that women's inclusion in the workforce has a negative impact on the bottom line. Among employers of both genders who believed that women's inclusion creates a negative impact, the most common reasons were the belief that men are more capable (21%) and that women have a need for more holidays and leave (15%).

Among employers of both genders who believe that women's inclusion creates a positive impact on the bottom line, top reasons for support were women's attributes or skills, including leadership and loyalty (18%) and enhanced productivity (11%). Many employers appear to lack awareness of the broader economic impact of women's employment, with only 4% mentioning benefits to the economy as an impact of women's inclusion in the workforce. Young women themselves appear unaware of the influence of women's employment on the economy, with only 3% of employed young women and 6% of women seeking employment citing benefits to the economy as the main impact of women's employment.

Developing a women's employment value proposition to demonstrate broader economic impact to employers could go a long way for encouraging the employment of young women. Investing in benefits that are important to women:

The study also revealed that employers may be investing in policies that are not in particularly high demand among young women in the MENA, such as the provision of female supervisors. At the same time, many employers are not offering benefits that are important to women, such as access to suitable and affordable transportation, flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and the provision of nurseries or daycare facilities. The survey results indicated that many women in the MENA do not know if their employers have policies in place to encourage the employment of young women. Increased awareness both inside and outside the organization is clearly needed to ensure that there is an alignment between the benefits offered by employers and those most in demand by young women. Encouraging entrepreneurship:

There is a very significant case to be made for creating sustainable economic growth by encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship among women in the MENA. The Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector and Arab Springs Survey conducted by Bayt.com in partnership with the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, shows that the Arab Spring has had a positive effect on driving higher interest in both economic and social development. To encourage entrepreneurship, governments need to reform the regulatory framework and lower the barriers for new company incorporation and continuing operations. For young women in particular, creating entrepreneurship programs and stimulating interest among young women in entrepreneurial opportunities could go a long way. Enhancing the role of SMEs:

Although SMEs are expected to comprise a significant portion of MENA's job growth, only 7% of young women job seekers indicated that they would most like to work in a small or medium local private company, as compared to 35% for multinationals and 26% for government or public sector. These preferences appear to be misaligned with the proportions of young women who are actually employed by each organization type: 23% of young employed women worked in SMEs, versus 22% in multinationals and 17% in government. To link more women to careers in SMEs, SMEs can focus resources on adopting high-priority policies such as flexible schedules or childcare, and on leveraging the networks of current employees for recruitment.

For years, governments, the international development community and other agencies, have studied the factors that contribute to the low employment rates among women in the MENA region. Socio-cultural norms and traditional gender roles; discriminatory hiring and compensation practices; and unwelcoming work environments, have all been identified as barriers preventing women from moving forward in their career. First Jobs for Young women in the Middle East and North Africa provides new insight into these issues and identifies clear paths forward.

Increasing workplace participation of women in the MENA will be an enormous task, but the rewards of such efforts will be significant. Now is the time to get serious.

"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 white paper here.