Arab countries have made measurable progress over the past few decades in gender equality, especially in education and health, but these strides have not translated into more gains in the economic life of the region. In the wake of International Women’s Day on March 8 and the post-Arab Spring economic troubles that plague the region, both Arab and international policymakers could use a reminder regarding the benefits of women’s economic participation. It goes without saying that keeping 50 percent of the population out of the economic life of any country will impact economic growth and prosperity through less productivity and consumption.
Economic research has demonstrated conclusively over the past few decades that more economically empowered women, invest far more in the education and health of their children It is the single most important factor in reducing poverty in developing countries. Many studies have also shown serious GDP per capita losses that can be directly linked to gender-gaps in labor markets. In the UAE, for example, the GDP would increase by as much as 12 percent and in Egypt by as much as 34 percent, if women’s labor participation were to rise to the level of men.
From 1975, the ratio of females to males enrolled in tertiary education tripled to 112 percent in 2010. In fact, eight Middle East and North Africa countries have a “reverse gender gap” in education at the tertiary level; reverse gender gaps also show up in primary education.
Why do Arab countries have the lowest women participation rates of women in economic life in the world, despite high rates of education equality which are close today to 100 percent in most countries in the region?
Many assume this has to with religion, yet evidence tells a different story. They show that culture and social norms have a great deal to do with it, but not religion directly, since countries with the same religion clearly show different rates. Over time, however, these norms do evolve. For example, only 10 percent of married women participated in the labor force in the United States during the 1930s and an overwhelming majority of husbands disapproved of their wives working at the time. Yet, today, the married female labor force participation in the United States is upwards of 70 percent, and more than 80 percent of husbands approve of their wives working.
Economic growth and development have also been shown to increase women participation. During the 1980s, female labor force participation in Greece, Ireland, and Spain was approximately 30 percent, well below the world average. Over the next three decades, their participation increased by 15-20 percent. In each of these countries, economic growth created new opportunities for women.
The legal system also tends to reinforce certain customs and social norms and, in doing so, institutionalize and legitimize certain behaviors. Unequal rights and treatment under the law are not unique to the Arab region. In the United States, before 1920, women did not have the right to vote and, until the 1930s, married women could travel only on their husbands’ passports. Unequal treatment of women in jobs, pay, and promotion was made illegal in the United States only twenty years after the end of World War II. In Spain, spousal permission continued to be a precondition for a wife to work until 1979; and in Switzerland until 1984. In the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia repealed spousal permission to work in 1959 and Morocco did so in 2004. However, in many other countries, inequality under the law is still active and must be removed to encourage more gender equality.
Despite low levels of participation in the labor force, worldwide, hard evidence shows that women spend as much as twice as men do on household work and four times as much as men on childcare. This translates to women making up the bulk of the non-paid and part-time workforce. In fact, women work much harder, yet without pay.
Many economic policy options can help Arab governments improve this situation and increase women’s participation in the labor force to harness greater economic growth. These include more nuanced labor taxation systems, more targeted social welfare benefits, tax credits, public financed parental leave schemes, better access to high quality child care services, changes in the legal code—and enforcement—to reduce gender based discrimination in hiring, firing, pay, and promotion, better flex-work arrangements, enhanced access to finance and training for female entrepreneurs.
All of these policy options and more can narrow the gap between men and women in economic life and can trigger a momentum of growth and job creation that can support much higher rates of GDP and deeper prosperity for all. If you walk away from reading this blog remembering only one thing, I hope it will be that gender equality is simply good economics; it is good public policy; it is good for the education and health of children, for the prosperity of our societies, and for the future of the Arab world as a whole.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a Senior Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and former adviser to the Dean of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank Group.