Female labor force participation is about more than economics

A Jordanian employee paints a handcrafted salver at a Beit al Bawadi ceramics workshop in Amman January 7, 2014. The Beit al Bawadi ceramic workshop was set up by non-profit organisation Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) to provide employment opportunities for Jordanian youths. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed (JORDAN - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - GM1EA1800K501

In rural Jordan, close to the Dead Sea, I saw men gathered at the door of the garment factory where their daughters, sisters, and wives worked. I thought it was a daily routine where male “protectors” pick up their “vulnerable” female family members from work. However, I was sure that the garment factory had buses that regularly picked up the girls from their homes at 7:00 a.m. and dropped them off again at 4:00 p.m.

I later learned that the male members of the village lined up outside the factory on payday—husbands, brothers, and uncles—to collect the wages of their female family members working in the factories near their homes. It was the unspoken “promise” that the young girls gave to their families and male guardians when they signed the employment contract with the factory.

It was a sad day for me to witness such injustice. The long hours these young girls spent at the garment factories sewing pockets on trousers or steam ironing shirts, which eventually will find their way to the racks of renowned department stores worldwide.

What was their reward I thought? Holding onto a check for only a few minutes as they find their way from the finance department at the factory to the front door where the check is handed over.

I have always felt that female employment is the lever to all social change. The most prominent research that emphasizes the importance of engaging women in the workforce to boost the economy was at the launch of the World Bank’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy in 2001. Since then, stakeholders have often used an economic argument to justify investing in the female labor force. For example, a recent World Bank report found that in low- and lower-middle income countries women account for only one-third of human capital wealth because of gender inequality, and that these losses have a direct effect on economic development. The World Bank recently said that globally we are losing $160 trillion in wealth because of the gender gap in earnings, including $3.1 trillion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The economic case goes further when discussing the gains to net profit of the corporate world. Fortune Magazine states that female CEO’s in the Fortune 1000 have achieved three times the returns as S&P 500. Thus, hiring women is lucrative for business.

Since the argument resonates very well with policymakers, they often translate this into female-friendly policies and interventions in the workplace—all in the quest to get a higher return on investment. However, while the economic argument helps to materialize women’s right to work, it treats the female labor force as a cash-generating commodity.

The problem with the economic argument, however, is that it might not achieve true empowerment, which will take addressing the moral underpinnings of women’s oppression. Therefore, as we continue to remove barriers for women entering the workforce, we need to look deep into value systems so that economics is balanced with human rights and the benefits brought to women’s welfare and agency. This requires a shift in the belief system about women, especially among males in conservative cultures where they have traditionally been the heads of households, the sole economic providers, and thus see themselves as having control over females in their families. In order to address the cultural barriers and the deep-rooted gender stereotyping concerning the division of labor, we must work closely with communities and with men specifically to raise the desirability and legitimacy of women working.

Unlike the girls at the beginning of this blog who were leaving the garment factory to meet the line of village men, we need to make sure that girls are part of a transformative process toward empowerment, both social and economic, that starts within their own communities. Instead of leaving the garment factory only to hand over their checks, they are part of a process in which their voices are heard and their agency recognized by male family members because the human rights argument outweighs the economic argument.

These would be baby steps toward amplifying the voices of women and giving them greater agency to reach toward a feminist economy.