This blog was written by Rice University Professor of Economics and Statistics Mahmoud El-Gamal
CAPMAS, the official Egyptian statistical agency, announced in 2014 that job market participation rates were three times higher for males (at 72.3%) than for females (at 23.1%). The average figures for the entire MENA region are slightly more lopsided, as reported by the World Bank based on ILO estimates, at 75% for males, and 22% for females over 15 years of age. Researchers noted that the gender gap in labor market participation in MENA is three times its counterpart in other emerging regions. Had this gap been two thirds of its size over the past decade, International Monetary Fund researchers calculated (box 1.3, p. 29), regional GDP would have been a trillion Dollars higher for that decade.
Social attitudes may hold the key to this large gender gap in labor market participation. Wave 6 of the World Values Survey (WVS6), collected between 2010 and 2013, sheds significant light on this issue. This wave of the survey covered 55 countries, including twelve countries from MENA (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Tunisia, and Yemen), to which I added Turkey, which is one of the ERF countries, to form MENAT.
It’s Not Simply An Islamic Issue
In what follows, I will focus mainly on one question in particular that was asked in WVS6: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women,” eliciting responses of “Agree,” “Neither,” or “Disagree.”
Affirmative responses to this question in MENAT (at 67.3%) were more than twice as high as they were for the remaining 42 countries (31.1%). The higher rates applied to both genders (74.7% for males and 60% for females in MENAT, as compared to 35.7% for males and 27% for females outside MENAT).
In the entire sample, the percentage of Muslims who agreed with the statement (at 61.8%) was nearly double the percentage of non-Muslims (at 32.5%). However, majority-Muslim populations do not entirely explain the difference in responses between MENAT and the rest of the world. In fact, within MENAT, the percentage of Muslims who agreed with the statement (at 66%) was less than the percentage of non-Muslims who did (at 68.7%).
Education is One Problem
An elaborate statistical analysis (using Bayesian Networks and Multinomial Logit estimation, and accounting for numerous variables) revealed that (lack of) education is the main observed factor contributing to variations in responses within MENAT. Those with a low level of education (primary school or less) had much higher rates of approval of the statement (at 73%) than those with more education (at 64%). However, even for the highest educated (college degree or higher) in MENAT, the rates of agreement with the statement (at 61.4%) are still much higher than the average agreement response outside the region.
The Bigger Zero-Sum Problem
Hence, the educational gap that needs to be bridged in the region is not simply one of schooling. For example, responses that agreed with another statement-question in the survey, “If a woman earns more money than her husband, it’s almost certain to cause problems,” were also much higher for MENAT (at 41.8%) than they were for the rest of the world (at 27.4%). Even more categorically, fully 74% of those surveyed in MENAT either agreed strongly or agreed with the statement “When a mother works for pay, the children suffer,” whereas the corresponding responses outside MENAT only accounted for 38% of all responses.
Thus, the region’s negative social attitude towards women’s participation in the labor force is viewed through a zero-sum lens, not only in the short-sighted sense of reducing job opportunities for men, but also in terms of family welfare. Arithmetic on lost GDP due to the high participation gap is unlikely to solve this deep social problem, and, as I have shown, the social issue runs too deep for simple solutions in education, secular or religious, desirable as they may be.