Time to stop ignoring cultural barriers to female employment in the MENA region

“We have no evidence.” That was the response I got consistently for my efforts to couple Active Labor Market Programs (ALMP) with mindset change initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The goal was to help communities and employers overcome social norms, as well as the cultural and social stigma related to women in the workplace. Since 2009, when countries in the region began to intensify their efforts to get more women to join the workforce, studies have shown the cultural barriers to female employment. Yet they remained unaddressed by policy solutions that are focused on solving the more objective barriers to employment, such as day care centers and transportation. As a result, female workforce participation rates in Jordan, for example, have remained dismal. In the first quarter of 2017, female unemployment rose 8.2 percentage points from 2016 to 33 percent. 

But a study released earlier this year by Promundo and UN Women helps bring to light powerful evidence of just how gender roles—especially social, family, and cultural restrictions placed on women—may be the main factor hindering women’s participation in the workplace in the MENA region. Using data from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) conducted in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Palestine, the study reveals that two-thirds to more than three quarters of men support the notion that a woman’s most important role is to take care of the household. In addition, the majority of men believe that it is their role to monitor and control women’s movement. And, in some countries, majorities of women appear to accept male guardianship. With women being defined as wives and mothers first—rather than as professionals—it is no wonder that the MENA region has low female workforce participation rates.

In order for the MENA region to increase women’s economic participation, it is important that we acknowledge and begin to break down these cultural barriers. I started JoWomenomics in 2015 for this reason. A first step is developing and disseminating unified messages that promote women in the workplace. This includes working with both men and women. At JoWomenomics, we brought together a committee of like-minded individuals, including Jordanian educators, scholars, tribal and community leaders, policymakers, the media and other specialists, who share a conviction to work towards shifting constraining belief systems about Womenomics—or, women in the economy—to one that enables women to transition from training to employment. The committee members design school programs, like career guidance and community empowerment programs that take individuals on a transformative learning journey to critically evaluate their belief system about women and careers, while building their confidence to explore new behaviors. For girls, this means exploring new career opportunities; for families, this means considering new roles for their daughters or wives; for employers, this means pursuing strategies to invest in and hire more female employees.

Specifically, our approach focused on removing the cultural stigma of women’s labor market participation. For example, a career guidance program was developed targeting 50 master trainers at the Ministry of Education, Jordan. These master trainers then went on to pilot the program by training select public school counselors to disseminate our Womenomics career guidance program, which promotes autonomous thinking and uses transformative learning theory. It is a process by which we make young people question taken for granted beliefs regarding Womenomics, reassess their value in a process of “rational discourse” and “critical reflection,” and transform those beliefs into a system of meanings and values that promotes women’s entry into the workforce. It is expected that greater number of young females after grade 10 will opt to enter into unconventional specialties in the vocational education stream, such as careers in the hospitality sector, as opposed to home economics, or simply dropping out of school.

At the community level, JoWomenomics has engaged with municipalities, governors, Ministry of Labor representative, school principals, community based organizations, other stakeholders, and families of young girls in the small village of Mughayir Al Sarhan in the north of Jordan close to the Syrian border. The approach was to facilitate mindset change among the community toward viewing women’s economic empowerment as being both “desirable” and “legitimate.” Specifically, we highlighted the economic benefits to the community and held information sessions with families in the presence of private sector representatives so that all hesitations, uncertainties, and concerns could be mitigated. As a result of these sessions, during the recruitment of females two weeks later, hundreds of females appeared with their families (including fathers and brothers) wishing to join our on-the-job work ethics and technical training. Thirty three women were placed in jobs with another 170 opting to join the garment factory with the full consent of their families and community members. We also helped to make Womenomics desirable by role-modeling the first 33 women who joined the factory, which helped to further legitimize the job and to encourage many other women to follow in their steps. A similar model will be implemented in two other communities in the Southern Shuneh Area (west of Jordan) and the community of Salhiya (north of Jordan).

The JoWomenomics initiative has also worked closely with the private sector to give these actors a greater stake in the game. For example, we engaged the management of a garment factory in a dialogue about the community’s economic aspirations and the families’ hesitations and doubts with regards to allowing their daughters and sisters to be employed at the factory. Through this process, the factory had the opportunity for the first time to discuss challenges they’ve faced hiring female employees within the community, including family and community resistance that led women to leave their jobs, resulting in high turnover rates. There was an open dialogue between both parties and expectations were managed.

While the Promundo and UN Women study was not the first to point out the extent to which cultural barriers can hinder female employment in the MENA region, their research helps bring to the fore to a consequential barrier to female employment in our region. Maybe now ALMP, NGO, and donor-level stakeholders will see that there is enough evidence to focus on a more lasting solution to tackle mindset change towards Womenomics.