CAIRO—Nada Kabil graduated from the German University in Cairo two months after Egypt’s popular uprising began in January 2011. But after months of sending out her resume, she gave up hope of finding a job in her field.
“As soon as I graduated, there were no jobs,” says Kabil, 25, who received a degree in product design. “I applied to everything, anything I could think of.”
The high unemployment rate of educated Arab youth is well known. What is less often understood is that in many Arab countries, female graduates have a particularly hard time finding a job. In the Middle East and North Africa region, only one in four women are either employed or looking for a job, half the global rate, according to a February 2013 World Bank report on gender equality in the Arab world.
Post-revolutionary Egypt is a case in point, a country where employment statistics are grim and, for young women, grimmer. Here, youth unemployment climbed to 25 percent in 2012 compared to 13 percent for the entire labor force, according to the latest government data. One-quarter of Egyptian women were unemployed at the end of 2012, compared to 10 percent of men. And the unemployment rate for women with university degrees was 32 percent, almost triple that for educated males in 2011.
As the economy slowed down, Hania Sholkamy, a professor of social anthropology at the American University in Cairo, says it became harder for women to find jobs. The government was hiring less, and the private sector remains biased against hiring women.
But many post-revolution officials say female unemployment is not a problem.
“There are no jobs lost, the economy is creating more jobs after the revolution,” says Manal Abul Hassan, general secretary of the women’s committee at the ruling Freedom and Justice Party. “In Egypt there is no direct discrimination of women, nothing prevents women from taking higher posts. It was just the corruption of the old regime.”
Statistics tell a different story. In Egypt and across the Arab region, the proportion of women in leadership and managerial positions is under 10 percent for most countries, according to the “Human Development Report 2013,” by the United Nations Development Programme.
The February 2013 World Bank report found that the female labor participation rate in the Arab region only inched up at an average of 0.17 percent annually.
Tara Vishwanath, the lead economist for the report, said in a Beirut presentation at the Carnegie Middle East Center that women in the MENA region were less likely to have well-developed social networks, and were therefore in a weaker position to employ wasta, or the use of personal connections to get hired or advance professionally.
Another problem, analysts say, is that many women interested in employment lack an important skill. “A lot of women don’t know how to go looking for jobs,” says Jamie McAuliffe, president of Education for Employment, which operates six programs across the Middle East and North Africa that trains graduates how to reach out to employers and land interviews.
Lina Abou Habib, executive director of the Lebanon-based Collective for Research and Training Action, said at the same Beirut presentation, “the problem is, no one really assumes responsibility for gender equality—not the state, not the private sector.”
Among graduates of higher-education institutions in Jordan, two-thirds of the jobless were women, according to the Jordanian Department of Statistics. In conflict-ridden Syria, youth unemployment rose to 35.8 percent in 2011 and was 27 percent among males, and 71 percent among females.
High unemployment among women hurts national economies, analysts say. “Women entering the labor market support the progress of economies and growth rates,” said Rami Zaatari, a team leader at the Syrian National Competitiveness Observatory, a nonprofit, private organization in Damascus. “There is a close link between the effective participation of women in the economy and enhanced competitiveness.”
In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the state restricts female employment. The kingdom’s Saudi Manpower Commission sets conditions for women’s employment that are barriers, the report says. Those conditions include a requirement that the woman has to be “in need” of work; she must perform a job in keeping with her female nature; the work should not distract from duties relating to home and marriage and not cause “harm to society.” The kingdom’s restrictions on driving by women also mean that they need either a driver or have to take public transportation, when it is available.
As a result, Saudi Arabia’s unemployment rate for women was 34 percent in 2012 compared to 7 percent for men. Among women who receive unemployment benefits, 40 percent are university graduates.
Even so, across the region, solutions are starting to be found and the situation is slowly changing, says McAuliffe. He says he is starting to see higher education institutions reach out more to employers in the private sector.
Saudi Arabia, where many academic concentrations were previously closed off to women, moved last year to allow women to study political science, law and petroleum engineering. King Saud University will be the first to admit female students in political science this year even though women will not be allowed to vote in the kingdom until 2015.
In Egypt, the public sector traditionally scooped up many educated female workers as a result of Nasser-era policies of guaranteed government employment. Those policies offered additional benefits to married women and those with children. The government employed 52 percent of all working women by 1998.
Hania Moheeb, an Egyptian freelance journalist who previously worked for the government, says women sought government positions because of job security, short working hours and long-term social security benefits that lasted years after leaving a government job.
Suspension of the public employment guarantee program in the 1990s and reforms to eliminate costly welfare programs primarily affected women.
“While the educated men who were eligible for guaranteed public sector employment were generally able to ﬁnd jobs in the private sector, women were obliged to move into very low-productivity subsistence agriculture or otherwise leave the labor market,” according to a U.N. report published in January on women and paid work.
Cultural expectations are one of the reasons women are at a disadvantage when it comes to seeking alternative employment, says the UN report, which notes concerns about personal safety and social expectations about family responsibilities. Marriage, it is clear, often hurts Arab women’s chances at becoming employed. A 2010 survey of community-college graduates in Jordan found that 92 percent wanted to work. A year later, only 7 percent of married graduates were employed, while 21 percent of single women were employed.
In Egypt, as the labor market shifts from government jobs to private sector jobs, both married and unmarried women face discrimination from private-sector employers who tend to believe that women are less productive and skilled than males, say analysts.
Some women have seen such bias up close and personal.
Twenty-nine-year old Aicha Mansour, who also graduated in 2011, found herself to be the only woman working alongside hundreds of men at an office furniture supplier in Cairo even though most of her classmates were women. When she was given the responsibility for recruitment, any attempt to bring more women on board was shot down.
“Whoever I suggested they said no ‘she’s a girl and she will not be able to handle it,’” says Mansour. “It was difficult.”
See also “Helping Women Hurdle Employment Barriers,” a related article on this topic