Female Labor Force Participation
Since 1990, labor participation rates in the Arab world have tended to stabilize for both men and for women. Female labor force participation rate was 21% in the Arab world in 1990, compared to 76% for males. The rates were 23% for females in 2016 and 75% for males (see Table 2.1).
Compared to other regions, the Arab world suffers from the lowest female-to-male participation rates (computed by dividing female labor force participation rate by male labor force participation rate).
Not only are the female labor force participation rates lower compared to those of males, the participation rates have plateaued for the past 20 years. Female labor force participation increased by a mere nine percentage points within the 1980-2008 period (from 18% to 27%).10 This indicates that the gender gap in labor force participation is not likely to be significantly narrowed anytime soon.
Looking at male versus female labor force participation rates in individual Arab countries, one can notice the extent of the problem. There is not a single Arab country where the female rate comes even close to the male rate. It is true that the gender participation gap represents a global phenomenon, yet nowhere does the difference appear as strong. In all but three cases, the differences between the two rates exceed 40 percentage points. In nine countries, the differences even exceed 50 percentage points.
Table 2.1 Labor force participation rates for males and females
Source: Human Development Report. (2016). United Nations Development Programme, New York, USA
There are many propositions that attempt to explain the dismal rates of labor participation for women in the Arab world. One such factor refers to the role of Muslim values that define a restrictive role of women in society.11 Yet, such a view could be challenged if one compares female labor force participation in Arab countries versus other Muslim countries. Many Muslim countries enjoy significantly higher participation rates compared to Arab countries. Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, two non-Arab Muslim countries, enjoy much higher female participation rates.
This in turn leads some scholars to note that there is an “Arab factor” rather than an “Islamic factor” thus invoking an “Arab culture” argument. Whether it is an “Islamic” or “Arab” factor, either position runs the risk of inviting a host of orientalist reductionist perspectives that have been challenged elsewhere.12 Without totally discounting the role of certain cultural understandings, one needs to understand the role of distinct economic and development factors when explaining the diversity of experiences within this vast region.
Irrespective of the reasons behind labor force indicators, the story is clear. Females lag significantly in terms of their labor force participation, and this has been the case for a long time. While Arab societies and economies have changed considerably over the past three decades, little change has occurred in the levels of female labor force participation. Some of the potential reasons behind this gap relate to economic changes over the past century. As societies transitioned from agriculture to industry, women missed many of the opportunities that were previously available to them.13 What women lost in some sectors weakened by development and automation, was not immediately compensated for by their involvement in the new emerging sectors. Less educated women who left their jobs in light industries because of production-related factors (such as factories becoming less laborintensive) were not able to immediately join newly created jobs (such as those in the IT sector) due to their deprived skillsets. A gender gap in education, coupled with increased automation, impacted women the most.
Another potential reason relates to the negative repercussions of the discovery of oil. Oil production has impacted Arab economies in a way that challenges conventional beliefs regarding the positive link between growth and gender equality.14 The economic impact of this discovery led many women out of the labor force in traditional sectors; those women were also not able to integrate in the booming oil-related businesses15 which anyway employ a low percentage of citizens,16 mostly males. The social and labor- related impact of oil has also transferred even to non-oil-producing Arab economies, as a wave of migrant labor (mostly males) became an integral part of the labor equation. The economics of oil have thus operated in a way that led to a disempowerment of women, both in terms of the meager numbers present in the workforce or in terms of their societal and political influence.17
This mixed-blessings of oil—that helped in the economic development of many countries, in building the infrastructures, and in advancing education—negatively impacted women’s participation. This led one Middle Eastern specialist to note that:
Women have made less progress toward gender equality in the Middle East than in any other region. Many observers claim this is due to the region’s Islamic traditions. I suggest that oil, not Islam, is at fault, and that oil production also explains why women lag behind in many other countries.18