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Meeting the Middle East II: The Bad News

Uschi Schreiber, our panel moderator at the Ernst & Young Growing Beyond 2012 Summit, held in Doha last week, made an observation that resonates with my own:  every country in the world struggles with gender.  Today, I want to elaborate on this observation to show the ways in which the Middle East and North Africa are similar, even to the West, in their gender divide, but then to go forward and highlight some of the differences.

One phenomenon observable in the Middle East North Africa region is also confounding virtually every country in the world:  investments in the education of females are not translating into labor force participation.  Now, on the one hand, one should not assume that the only benefit to education is work.  It is important for women to be sophisticated enough to be good citizens and to be aware of their own rights.  It is also important for children that their mothers be educated.  Nevertheless, if the global goal is economic autonomy for women–and that is the global goal–then we have a problem.

You can see in the chart to the right (click it to see a bigger version) that women in the MENA countries participate at levels considerably lower than their educational achievements would suggest they should (see yesterday’s post for that data).  Some of these countries have very low levels of male employment also.  That is why I have put in the female-to-male participation ratio, alongside the percentage of females involved in work. This drop-off between education and work also occurs in most other countries, but the decline in the MENA countries is much steeper.

Another troubling bit of data shows the pay scales for women in the same group of countries.  On the left, the column marked, “Equal Pay” is the ratio of female to male compensation when they are doing similar work, as reported by the World Economic Forum.  This measure reflects reports from executives surveyed in the region.  On the right, “Estimated Earnings,” is the calculation of female to male pay over the course of a lifetime, based on actual incomes.  These figures are based on “hard” data, but reflect gender segregation in types of employment (such as teaching versus construction) and so are not as comparable as the other measure. Notice that the women make much less than the men, even when they are employed in similar jobs.  This phenomenon also occurs, at about the same proportion, in Europe and North America. The “Estimated Earnings,” however, are lower than you would find elsewhere, indicating a greater degree of gender segmentation in employment categories.

In looking for the reasons–beyond simple discrimination–I examined the figures surrounding reproduction.  Reproductive circumstances have a big impact on economic engagement for women:  these are not separate economic compartments. As I mentioned yesterday, the overall fertility for this group of countries is not too far off the replacement rate.  Yet, notice how low the use of contraceptives is (see chart left).  This figure includes the use of “traditional” methods (such as withdrawal) that seldom work, as well as methods that are of little use when the woman can’t “say no” (such as withdrawal).  The maternal mortality rate is also pretty high in several countries (it is 12 in the UK), even though most births in these countries are attended by skilled professionals.

Notice also that the adolescent fertility rate is high for many of these countries. (This is the number of births to teens per 1,000.  For perspective, it is 9.0 in Norway.) The early marriage rate is often high (this represents the percentage of teens who marry). All these figures, together with the fertility rates, posed a puzzle:  how can fertility rates be this low when contraceptive use is so limited and adolescents are marrying and getting pregnant at such a high rate?

There really can only be one answer:  use of abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies.  And, indeed, a report from the Population Reference Bureau says that the incidence of abortion in the Middle East and North Africa is 25% higher than the global average.  This is true, even though restrictions against abortion are more stringent here than most places.

The situation is particularly troublesome because women in the region have very few protections against sexual violence.  Of all the countries in the list, only the UAE has a law against marital rape, according to the UN’s 2011 report.  Only Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE have laws against domestic violence.  Overall, the WEF gives most countries a score of .75 on a scale where 1.0 is the worst, when it comes to having laws that protect women against violence.

So, essentially, the women of  the Middle East and North Africa still have very little control over their own reproduction.  And this, no doubt, affects their employment.  In this group of countries, most have laws against discrimination in pay (as do most countries in “the West,” where such laws are also not enforced) and most protect pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired.  However, according to the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law 2012 report, several (Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, OMan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and UAE) do not have laws against discriminatory hiring practices.  Only Bahrain and Turkey have made it illegal to ask questions about family planning intentions in job interviews. Furthermore, again according to the World Bank report, very few on this list have made sexual harassment in the workplace illegal (there is some disagreement between the UN and the World Bank reports on this matter).

What we see here is an exaggerated example of the whole picture, worldwide:  the convergence of reproductive circumstances to keep women disadvantaged in the workplace.  The issue of maternity leave or childcare is only one manifestation of this phenomenon.  As long as women can’t go to work without being sexually bullied, can’t plan their own families along with their careers, can’t go to a job interview without detailing their pregnancy plans, and so on, then they are being disadvantaged economically via reproductive mechanisms.  The lack of control over childbirth also clearly affects the amount of gender segregation, because women go into jobs that can be managed along with the reproductive situation, including part-time work.  Lack of protection against sexual harassment keeps women in “pink” jobs, as well–it is too risky to go into male-dominated industries if you can’t even be physically safe.  In countries where women have little or no protection even against being impregnated against their will by their own husbands, this whole situation is that much worse.

The idea that reproduction and economic participation are separate issues is a neoclassical fantasy, an artificial compartmentalization that keeps us–that is, the women of the world and the men who would help them–from seeing what we need to do next.


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