Women in the Arab world have long fought to gain better access to economic and social opportunities. Despite the achieved success in increased educational attainment, the majority of Arab women remain outside the labor force.
Women Labor: A Missed Opportunity for the Arab World
Throughout the Arab world, women continue to lag behind in achieving employment and decision-making opportunities. If Arab females of working age and with a good education are to participate in the labor force, household incomes would increase by 25%1. According to the IMF, the region could have gained $1 trillion between 2000 and 2011 in GDP. For example, the UAE’s GDP could increase by 12% and Egypt’s by 34%.
Yet, female labor force participation in the region has only grown by an average 0.17% annually over the past 30 years. According to the World Bank, only 25% of Arab women are employed or actively looking for work, compared to other developing countries where, on average, over 50% of women are doing the same. As it stands now, the Arab world needs 150 years to reach the current global average. As a matter of fact, female labor force participation in the Arab world remains the lowest in the world: South Asia (29%), Europe (51%), Latin America (53%), North America (57%), East Asia (61%), and Africa (63%). Female labor force participation varies within the Arab world, with rates as high as 47% and 37% in Kuwait and Qatar compared to Syria (12%), Jordan (14%), Iraq(15%), and Algeria(17%).
Figure 1 – The participation of women in the labor force is low in the Arab world
Education without jobs
In the Arab world, the broad gains in female education aren’t reflected by the same gain in female employment. Under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Arab world increased female literacy to the 2015 global average of 80% up from 66% in 2000. This places female literacy at rates closer to male literacy of 88% in 2015. Similarly, female enrolment in post-secondary education improved in the region, surpassing gains made in other developing regions. This complies with Sustainable Development Goal 4 of eliminating gender disparities in education and ensuring equal access to all levels of education. One indicator of this success is that female college enrolment is generally higher than that of male students. In Qatar, for example, 54% of university-age women are enrolled in universities compared to only 28% of their male counterparts.
However, the steep increase of Arab female education rates did not lead to an increase in employment in all Arab countries. With an average of 45% of female tertiary enrolment, only 25% of Arab women are employed. This is contrasting to a world average of 44% of women working and 37% of female enrolment in tertiary education. This number, however, varies for different countries in the region with Qatar having an impressive 36% of women working compared to a 44% enrolment in tertiary education. In contrast, Jordan and KSA have an opposite image of only 13% and 21% of women working but 47% and 62% female enrolment in tertiary education. Other countries with a sharp gap between female tertiary education and participation in the labor force include Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Palestine2.
Educated Arab women are more likely to try and seek a job than other Arab women. However, this causes high-competition for high-skill jobs. As a result, educated women are competing over a limited number of jobs, and many of them find themselves unemployed. Unemployment rates are higher for most Arab women with post-secondary educations than Arab women who do not have a post-secondary education. For example, 30% of those without post-secondary educations were unemployed in Jordan and Egypt in 2011 and 2012, while unemployment rates for the most educated women in these two countries exceeded 60% and 40%, respectively.
Are women studying degrees demanded in the job market?
Despite their educational attainment, Arab women’s education remains restricted to arts and humanities. This is reflected in employability statistics, with only 30% of technical and professional jobs occupied by Arab women3. For example, in Egypt, female enrollment is highest in the fields of education (72%), humanities (72%), and arts (73%) compared to other disciplines such as engineering (28%). Moreover, women end up competing over a limited number of positions and mostly remain unemployed. This is verified by the Arab Human Development Report that discusses “women are still concentrated in specializations such as literature, the humanities, and social sciences, which are not in high demand in the job market.”
Additionally, in most parts of the Arab world, arts and humanities programs tend to train women for the public sector, where, except for in Gulf countries, salaries and opportunities for advancement are more limited than in the private sector. In a study on the UAE, researchers found that career choices were more likely based on societal pressures. Society viewed the public sector as a respectable occupation for Emirati women with short hours, considerable vacation days, and a work environment with fellow nationals. As a result, 65% of Emirati civil servants are females.
1 Data from 2009 is the latest available data.
2 Data for other Arab countries: Algeria (45% female enrolment in tertiary education and 15% participation in the LF), Tunisia (43% female enrolment in tertiary education and 26% participation in the LF), Lebanon (45% female enrolment in tertiary education and 22% participation in the LF), and KSA (62% female enrolment in tertiary education and 21% participation in the LF).
3 Such professions include (as classified by the ILO): Engineers, health professionals, business and administration, legal professionals, and information and communication technicians.
World Bank. 2009. The Status and Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa.
World Bank. 2016. Women, Business, and the Law.
World Bank. 2017. World Development Indicators.
Gulf Labor Market and Migration. 2016. Demographic and Economic Data.
Brookings Doha Center. 2016. Equality and the Economy: Why the Arab World Should Employ More Women.
World Bank. 2016. World Development Indicators.
Qatar Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics. 2017. Labor Force Survey 2016 Q2.
Strategic Planning Unit, Ministry of Higher Education. 2010. Higher Education in Egypt: Country Background Report;and UN Human Development Report for Egypt, Youth in Egypt: Building Our Future