by Aisha Al-Sarihi
While oil wealth accounts for nearly 45.6 percent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s GDP (at times of high oil prices), female participation in the labour force stands at just under 30 percent, with some double-digit unemployment rates (Figures 1 and 2). Giving the economic vulnerability to oil price fluctuations, especially the post-2014 fall in oil prices, GCC states have introduced some economic reforms as well as developed alternative energy sources (including renewables) in order to minimise their economic reliance on oil export revenues.
Why is there still such low women workforce participation despite the oil wealth?
Oil exports, since the discovery of petroleum reserves in the region in the 1930s, has allowed the Gulf states to generate considerable wealth, accounting for at least 55–80 percent of total governmental revenues. Oil export revenues have supported rapid economic growth, with substantial public spending on education, health, infrastructure, increasing standards of living and public sector jobs. For women, this has translated into high educational attainment, as now 70 percent of the population with at least some secondary education in the GCC are females (see Figure 1), but yet this has not led to higher representation in the workforce.
State spending on public sector jobs has focused on education, health, administrative jobs in the ministries and governmental authorities, and oil and gas sectors, allocating around 3.6 percent of GDP to the public payroll. In these sectors there have indeed been opportunities for women to join the workforce, especially in health and education. Yet, enabling a gender-segregated working environment, especially in health and education organisations, has led to little change in social and cultural norms and a conservative societal attitude towards women in the workplace. Instead, oil wealth and its associated gender-segregated working environment has reinforced rather than challenged these attitudes, along with other social norms regarding marriage, fertility and women’s role outside the household.
Additionally, state spending in public sector jobs has contributed to shape youth expectations about unemployment, which include high wages and short working hours. These expectations have been reinforced by the inability of the public sector to promote productivity or make efficient use of national labour force resources and, at the same time, the role of the public sector in weakening the growth and diversity of the private sector. Oil wealth has created no need for other industries, or a manufacturing tradition, and instead jobs are limited to the tertiary (services) sector. These jobs offer lower wages and longer working hours compared to the public sector, and are therefore not desirable for the local population – especially women – with limited opportunities for graduates specialised in natural sciences, arts, social sciences, agricultural science or economics. Such a non-diversified and non-competitive job market reduces the chances for women to compete based on their qualifications.
Can economic diversification and clean energy transition change the dynamics of women workforce participation?
Both economic diversification and the expansion of renewable energy investments are expected to require the increased involvement of the private sector and create more opportunities for small and medium enterprises.
There is mounting evidence that low-carbon technologies (such as renewables) and energy efficiency projects are more labour-intensive than traditional fossil-fuel energy projects. A UK study suggests that every million-pound sterling (£m) invested in fossil fuels creates about six jobs, whereas for renewable energy the figure is approximately sixteen, for energy efficiency initiatives fourteen, and for RE and EE combined about fifteen. An IRENA study estimates that achieving the GCC’s renewable energy targets alone could create more than 220,500 jobs by 2030.
Unlike the traditional public sector which does not promote productivity or make efficient use of labour force resources, a qualified and skilled workforce is essential to promote private sector investments in renewable energy. As such, women may be at a greater advantage in entering the new energy market compared to men due to their high educational attainment. A 2016 IRENA survey on renewable energy companies worldwide showed that female representation in these workforces was on average 35 percent, a share greater than in the traditional energy sector (Figure 4).
Although clean energy transitions create more opportunities for women to participate in the labour market compared to the oil wealth era, social and cultural attitudes towards women in the workplace may persist unless they are addressed properly.
What can be done so women can take advantage of the clean energy transition?
To enhance the economic inclusion of women, systematic changes need to be introduced to the education system and working environment, using both top-down and bottom-up approaches:
- Integrate clean energy and climate change knowledge in the education system. At present, limited attention has been given to integrating the science around climate change and renewable energy into the GCC’s education curricula. Importantly, integrating this new knowledge as pure natural science is not enough – further links between science and business should be taught in order to encourage an entrepreneurial mentality among the students. Such integration is not only necessary to match the needs of the future energy market but also to meet economic diversification objectives towards building knowledge-based economies.
- Enable interactive discussion and exchanges of knowledge and views in the classroom. Traditional educational systems in the GCC have created a gender-segregated educational environment and have focused on the lecturing style of teaching. Changing social attitudes towards women should begin at the school and university level, through encouraging teaching styles to allow for interactive discussions and the exchange of ideas among male and female students. This can enhance students’ critical thinking faculties and encourage the appreciation of others’ points of view, and in this way also improving attitudes towards women.
- Remove gender-based barriers to starting a business. The oil era has weakened the private sector by reinforcing the many institutional barriers that face start-ups and entrepreneurs. Without governmental intervention, these can impact women more because of the networking with different groups of people required to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Introducing female-focused entrepreneurial training programs could help to encourage female entrepreneurship and participation in the labour force in general.
- Introduce gender equality targets and gender-sensitive policies that protect women’s rights. Most GCC countries have introduced initiatives that call for policy reforms to boost female participation in the formal economy through providing day care centres, maternity leave pay and ‘flexi-time’ work arrangements. These policies help women to balance their careers with their traditional gender roles of ‘managing the home, husband and children’. There remains, however, a gap between these policies and their implementation, which should be addressed.
- Work with international organisations like the UN in order to develop programs aiming at promoting female economic empowerment. International organisations like UN Women can help in developing best practices to help GCC societies address gender gaps at both governmental and community levels.