Education has helped move gender equality forward across the region, Haifa Fahoum Al-Kaylani, founder and chair of the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF), told Al-Ahram Weekly on the fringe of AIWF’s recent meeting at the American University in Cairo.
Education may have helped lift families out of poverty and to break the cycle of under-privilege, deprivation and disenfranchisement, but Al-Kaylani warns much work remains to be done.
“Although many women are educated across the MENA region and globally this is not always translated into employment in male-dominated sectors,” she says.
The Middle East and North Africa region has halved illiteracy since 1980 and achieved almost complete gender parity for primary education, points out Al-Kaylani. In almost every MENA country women are now graduating from universities in greater numbers than men. In some countries the ratio of women to men studying at university is 2:1, while in Gulf states 60 per cent of university graduates are women.
Al-Kaylani says six types of intervention are necessary to bridge the gender gap and push through further progress for women: promoting financial incentives and support for women; promoting literacy in technology and improving infrastructure; creating economic opportunities for women; capacity building; building on advocacy to reshape cultural attitudes and inspire women’s own self-belief and reform of laws, policies and regulations that impact the lives of women and children.
AIWF held its Cairo meeting under the banner “Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Executives and Educators: Towards Fulfillment of Sustainable Development Goals in Egypt and the MENA Region”.
Al-Kaylani believes gender parity can be achieved by strengthening normative and legal frameworks impacting working women, ensuring decent work and progression opportunities for women at all levels and in all sectors. Simply increasing women’s labour force participation and eliminating discriminatory barriers could raise productivity by as much as 25 per cent in some economies, she says.
“This requires serious political will and the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders — including, most importantly, women and young people themselves — to integrate gender perspectives in labour and economic institutions and programmes at local, national and global levels.”
According to Al-Kaylani, companies with female chairs have 31.9 per cent women on their boards of directors whereas companies with a male chair have just 10.5 per cent. Among the industries with the highest percentage of women on boards are the media and technology sector at 12 per cent and manufacturing at 11 per cent, and “companies with women on the board are outperforming companies lacking board gender diversity by 36 per cent”.
For Al-Kaylani it is essential to discuss women’s leadership and gender diversity on corporate boards and in family business. Women’s inclusion and participation in the MENA economy, with an emphasis on women in rural areas and in agricultural sectors, still needs to be studied thoroughly, as does the future of women’s and young people’s work in a region where female participation in the economy is among the lowest in the world and youth unemployment figures among the highest. Youth unemployment is estimated at 25 per cent in the MENA region, the highest in the world according to IMF data.
Al-Kaylani stresses that women’s economic participation varies significantly from country to country in the Arab region, especially between the GCC and other Arab states. World Bank figures, drawn from International Labour Organisation data and World Bank population estimates, show that the percentage of women in the labour force in 2017 in the MENA region increased only slightly, from 19.5 per cent to 20.5 per cent, compared to a global percentage of 39.3 per cent. In Egypt, according to World Bank data, the percentage of formal female labour force participation was 23 per cent.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.