The rate of female labor force participation (FLFP) fails to improve across the Middle East and North Africa despite women’s increasing educational attainment, rising age at first marriage, decreased fertility rates, and increased international advocacy around women’s economic opportunities and empowerment. Examining various explanations in the literature and considering cross-national variations (e.g., resource endowments and sanctions), this essay identifies common institutional factors that limit female labor supply and demand in the region.
Female labor force participation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains low despite increases in other components of women’s empowerment. Why this is the case preoccupies many economists and sociologists of the MENA region. Although region-wide analysis must account for national-level specificities, historical and institutional features, such as late and limited industrialization, discriminatory family laws, absence of support structures for working mothers, and private sector precarity, help explain the continued region-wide constraints on female supply and demand.
In 2020, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report found that no country in the MENA region, apart from Israel, ranked in the top 100 countries for women’s “economic participation and opportunity.” Indeed, sixteen of the bottom twenty-five countries for this measure are in MENA. For gender equality in economic participation, MENA measured at 0.425, which is one of the lowest regional ratings. Though South Asia ranks lower, MENA’s overall gender equality is the lowest of all world regions, as South Asia performs better on the “political empowerment” metric. Among MENA countries, Tunisia performs the highest on women’s political empowerment, but its female labor force participation rate remains at just 26 percent. Iran performs far worse on international rankings of female political empowerment, although the fall 2022 women-led social protests suggested an impressive capacity to mobilize. At 15 percent in 2021, Iran’s FLFP rate is among the lowest in the region.
The MENA region is more heterogenous than often assumed, as it includes very rich oil economies with large migrant worker populations (the Arab sheikhdoms along the Persian Gulf); countries with hinterlands, sizeable populations, and more diversified economies (Algeria, Iran, Morocco, Turkey); countries in conflict or with failed or weak states (Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen); and countries under international or US sanctions (Iran, Syria). Such diversity does produce some variation in FLFP rates, but the rates still are lower than in other regions. In addition, intra-regional trade and investment, which could increase jobs and entrepreneurial activities for citizens across the region, is very limited.
One specificity of FLFP in some MENA countries, notably Tunisia and to a lesser degree Iran and Turkey, is that the participation of women with tertiary education is at a par with comparator countries (e.g., in Latin America). The low participation rates among women with intermediate education or less push down overall FLFP rates, because most working-age women in the MENA region have education levels at or below the secondary school level. At the same time, the unemployment rates among university educated women are very high. In Saudi Arabia in 2013, 70 percent of unemployed women had college degrees.
Sources of Low Female Labor Force Participation
Explanations of the low FLFP can be grouped into culturalist, economic, and institutionalist categories. Many empirical studies that draw on responses to the World Values Survey show that measures of patriarchal culture are negatively correlated with FLFP. Furthermore, marriage, fertility, and education are key determinants of female labor supply. Additional studies show that university-educated women in the public sector maintain their labor market participation status after marriage or childbirth, while women with lower educational attainments and those working in the private sector often experience changes in their labor market participation status after marriage or childbirth. The high unemployment rates among university-educated women suggests problems on the demand side.
Demand side problems, including limited industrialization and male-intensive, capital-intensive regional oil economies, have suppressed the demand for female labor in MENA countries. Not only were MENA countries late industrial developers but they also experienced “premature deindustrialization” when they expanded their service sectors before establishing the dynamic export-led manufacturing processes that had employed so many women in southeast Asian and some Latin American countries. Fast rates of urbanization in a period where resource endowments could enable high urban wages resulted in the maintenance of patriarchal norms and one-breadwinner families in urban economies. Furthermore, forms of agricultural production (male-owned small farms) and women’s exclusion from landownership have been linked to low levels of FLFP. The inability of the private sector to create appropriate jobs for women, combined with the contraction of good public sector employment, keeps FLFP low and female employment limited while also contributing to high female unemployment.
Formal institutions, such as discriminatory family laws that keep women subordinate to male kin and inheritance unequal, assist in keeping FLFP rates low. Although in principle a woman may start a business, in practice she may be without the needed collateral for a bank loan. Such a disadvantage may have various causes, but the unequal distribution of family wealth is among them. Whereas the average share of women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is 34 percent globally, it is only 14 percent in the Arab region. In the face of much opposition from the Islamist party Ennahda, Tunisian feminists and progressives tried but failed to make the country’s parliament adopt an equal-inheritance bill in 2018. The presence of such discriminatory laws and policies may help reinforce conservative attitudes regarding women, work, and family.
Moreover, MENA states do not encourage a higher rate of FLFP through incentives such as tax-funded maternity leave and subsidized quality childcare. This lack of work–family reconciliation measures is an important explanation for the low FLFP in Turkey, for example. In many countries, labor protections may be enforced in the public sector but do not extend to the private sector, especially in the large small-scale enterprises that prevail across the region. Independent unions where women might be recruited and protected are absent in most countries, though Tunisia is a notable exception. Even so, most union members are public-sector workers; as noted, governments have been reducing the public sector wage bill. This is the case in Iran, where a combination of US sanctions and the Iranian government’s own mismanagement has reduced public sector employment, leading to a decline in women’s labor force participation. Iran’s maternity leave provisions are generous, but private sector conditions are not attractive. The lack of supportive institutions for working mothers, combined with low wages and limited benefits in the private sector, prevent many women from working-class, low-income, and conservative households from participating in the workforce.
Care and Precarity
The most recent World Bank data shows that FLFP rates have declined in many countries across the globe, including countries with historically high rates (e.g., the United States and especially Vietnam). However, FLFP rates have always been low in MENA. Even where some initiatives have been introduced to provide women with some degree of economic participation and empowerment, working conditions are far from optimal. In Morocco, for example, a focus on food security as well as exports in Morocco inspired its Plan Vert, which included initiatives to integrate rural women’s traditional knowledge into the production of natural products. An academic study of six villages with agricultural cooperatives found women producing argan oil, seeds, couscous, quinoa, honey, thyme (in the High Atlas), and cactus. Yet, while the women were working hard to make a living, their labor, considered non-salaried, was not eligible for social protection or a pension plan, and the women were only remunerated according to the tasks provided. As a result, FLFP has failed to rise in Morocco. Indeed, it has declined in Morocco, as it has in Egypt.
Where the FLFP rate is going up, as in Algeria, it is the result of increased unemployment. Female unemployment rates in the larger MENA countries often match or exceed their participation rates; this is the case almost everywhere except in the richest and smallest Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.
If high female unemployment rates constitute an obstacle to MENA women’s economic empowerment, another impediment is the absence of institutional support for working mothers, which can prevent women from seeking paying jobs. Working-class and middle-class women across the region largely undertake most of the cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children and elderly relatives on their own. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has intensified women’s care responsibilities, compelling some to leave the labor force altogether. This may have affected the educated, middle-class women who typically have the highest labor force participation rates.
Overall, the contracting public sector and a lack of suitable jobs in the private sector have resulted in a large proportion of women who could be in the labor force remaining outside it. Without the requisite developmental social policies, most MENA countries will see women remaining largely outside the formal labor force, unable to contribute to productivity, growth, and women’s own economic empowerment.
The causes of low FLFP rates in MENA cannot be found in a single variable but lie in a broader explanatory framework that considers the macroeconomic (and macro-political) environment, labor market institutions and wage-setting processes, employer recruitment practices and biases, and social institutions. More research is needed into the interaction of those factors, how they operate to form a kind of vicious cycle in MENA, and how it may be possible to turn that cycle into a virtuous one. Legal and policy reforms are needed: reforming family laws, providing government-funded maternity leaves and childcare, and ensuring decent work conditions in the private sector. These initiatives are important both for women’s equality and employment and for better economic outcomes in MENA countries. Indeed, entities such as The World Bank, the IMF, and the World Economic Forum offer economic arguments or a “business case” for women’s economic participation and empowerment. They argue that investing in women’s education and employment is integral to building national human resource and tax base, as well as increasing national income, growth, and productivity. For these goals to be met, legal and policy reforms are needed: removing discriminatory family laws, providing government-funded maternity leaves and childcare, and ensuring decent work conditions in the private sector. In an ideal world, normalization of relations across all MENA countries, along with the lifting of US sanctions, could lead to increased intra-regional trade, investment, and job creation, with unions and women’s organizations consulted on economic and employment matters. That ideal world is yet to be realized.
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Valentine M. Moghadam is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University in Boston. With specializations in globalization, social movements, and the gendered politics of the Middle East, she is the author of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (1993, 2003, 2013) and coauthor, with Shamiran Mako, of After the Arab Uprisings: Progress and Stagnation in the Middle East and North Africa (2021). With Massoud Karshenas, she is currently examining household and labor force surveys to analyze dynamics of women’s labor force participation in Iran over the past two decades.