A 2005 World Economic Forum report measuring gender equality in fifty-eight countries ranked Jordan in the bottom four nations, alongside Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt. After the ousting of Mubarak in February 2011, hopes were high that change would come to women in Egyptian society, but little progress has been made. In stark contrast, the Jordanian government has proactively invested in improving educational opportunities for women over the last two decades, raising the female literacy rate to between eighty and ninety percent. By closing the gender gap in education, Jordan has created a solid foundation for the advancement of women.
Yet, despite efforts to empower women through education, female participation in the workforce remains extremely low, at just fourteen to twenty percent. This paradox indicates that a huge investment in women’s knowledge, skills, and abilities is not resulting in increased productivity or innovation in the economy. This lost potential is one of the many reasons for the country’s economic difficulties.
But, why the disconnect? Why has education gender parity not translated into a greater female contribution to the workforce? These questions propelled my research this January, when I was in Jordan on behalf of a non-profit organization applying for a USAID-funded project. Tasked with writing the project’s gender strategy, I traveled to Amman and conducted several interviews in the course of six days.
The persistence of the employment gap despite the closing education gap can be explained in part by the disparity between how gender norms are articulated and reproduced in the public sphere versus the private sphere. The narrowing gender gap in education is largely a result of the Government of Jordan’s commitment to improving women’s literacy and college attendance. The Constitution enshrines this commitment in an article stating that “the government shall ensure work and education within the limits of its possibilities, and it shall ensure a state of tranquility and equal opportunities to all Jordanians.” The Ministry of Education Charter specifically guarantees gender equality in education.
Although public policies like these have succeeded in increasing women’s university attendance, women’s choices after college remain governed by intra-household gender norms and dynamics—most salient among them the emphasis on women’s roles as mothers and caregivers whose natural place is in the home rather than the workplace. By way of explanation, many Jordanian consultants and government officials raise the issue of work-life balance as a major barrier to women’s employment. One Jordanian development professional stated bluntly in an interview: “Male chauvinism is the biggest constraint to women’s employment.”
The challenge of overcoming deeply entrenched perceptions of women’s place in society will require more than educational advancement. Beliefs about women’s responsibilities in the home are deeply held—especially outside of the urban elites—and unlikely to change significantly anytime soon (almost certainly not within the lifetime of a typical development project). Therefore, it is up to other economic actors to make the adjustments necessary—at least in the short-term—to take advantage of this significant untapped resource.
Greater flexibility in working hours and location would enable women to take on meaningful work while also caring for their families. If, as the government hopes, the economy shifts toward knowledge-based sectors such as information technology and business process outsourcing, this will become increasingly feasible. For example, new firms can reduce overhead costs by employing women in their homes. The nascent stage of these industries also presents an opportunity for firms to be trendsetters in policies like flexible hours and provision of safe transportation. The firms would benefit from a larger pool of candidates and an improved corporate image. And the Jordanian economy would grow as a result.
Some might take issue with what could be construed as an apologist approach to improving women’s participation in Jordan’s workforce. They might argue that accommodating the status quo does not resolve the underlying constraints on women’s equal participation in society. While there is validity to these arguments, history has shown that attempts to effect cultural change by tackling sensitive issues head on can often lead to greater backlash than progress—at least in the short term. Temporarily accommodating these norms would demonstrate the economic, social and familial value of women’s participation in the workforce. Combined with more culturally confrontational strategies, this proof could change attitudes toward gender in the long term—in both the public and private spheres.
In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, the Jordanian government has more incentives than ever to foster economic and political stability by expanding employment opportunities. Increasing women’s economic participation is a critical part of this effort. Firms need incentives to test out creative solutions and strategies for employing women that acknowledge and stretch current cultural norms. The first step is to make the employment transition smoother for women and their families. By doing so, the employment gender gap, like the education gender gap, will be history.