by Souad Mohamed & Iva Hamel
According to the World Bank’s 2022 ‘Women, Business and the Law’ Report, the eighth in a series of annual studies measuring the laws and regulations that affect women’s economic opportunity in 190 economies, there is a strong positive correlation and clear evidence of a ‘critical relationship between legal gender equality and women’s employment and entrepreneurship’. In other words, legal reform can positively impact women’s labour force participation. Moreover, the report intrinsically links improvements in the legal landscape with levelling the playing field for women and narrowing the gender pay gap.
Recent World Bank reports (2021, 2022) acknowledge the remarkable progress toward gender equality that the MENA region has made over the last two years in the face of unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, which itself has unquestionably and disproportionately impacted women in the region. As the 2021 report notes: ‘Despite the adversities of the last year, many economies made gender equality a priority’; significantly, for the Arab world, ‘every region improved its average score, with economies in the Middle East and North Africa seeing the greatest increase.’ Globally, the Report notes, ‘several of the changes eliminated job restrictions or aimed to reduce the gender wage gap. Other improvements were good-practice legislation related to marriage and parenthood or to removing constraints to women’s entrepreneurship.’
MENA government-led responses to the challenges that women have encountered throughout the pandemic have on the whole been progressive. These have included ensuring women’s protection from domestic violence, access to childcare and increased social protection. Yet despite these monumental leaps forward for women, many MENA states are still struggling with the basics of female inclusion. It is well documented that the region has the world’s lowest rates of female participation in the labour market at just 20%. Arab countries have the lowest representation of women in parliament, with just 17% of seats held by women in national parliaments according to 2022 Inter-Parliamentary Union figures. And most staggeringly, the Arab region has the world’s lowest rates of women-led entrepreneurship at an estimated 4%.
This is not because reform measures are absent, but because sustainable, outcome-based reform takes time to generate tangible, measurable results. For example, it might take labour force participation rates three to four years to climb after reforms to improve women’s workforce inclusion have been enacted. Likewise, with the gender pay gap, reforms cannot yield immediate results when gender inequality is largely structural and deeply entrenched not in workplace policy but in societal and cultural norms.
Although legal shifts passed in the MENA region have resulted in 10 positive data changes (WBLE, 2022) an increased labour force participation rate cannot be achieved by changing just one law or one regulation. What is necessary is a broad and ambitious program that targets various aspects of women’s working lives. For example, we would not see a positive impact for women’s workforce participation if we only introduced paid paternity leave without addressing inconsistencies and deficiencies in workplace policy regarding maternity leave, or reframing ‘paternity/maternity’ leave as simply, ‘parental’ leave, thereby eliminating the assumption that all women are primary caregivers and all men, the breadwinners. We would not see change if we only introduced sexual harassment laws for the workplace without undergoing broad national legislative reform aimed at stamping out sexual harassment in its entirety, as Saudi Arabia did in its reform measures introduced last year.
In Saudi Arabia we saw the enactment of an ambitious package of historic measures lifting legal barriers to women in many aspects of their working lives including freedom of travel and movement, enabling women to be heads of households, non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit and employment, and the easing of restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and in certain sectors. Following these broad reforms, the number of women owned businesses increased by 50%, 16% more than the increase in female entrepreneurship in 2017–18 and since 2019, female labour force participation has increased from 22% to 31%. These improved outcomes in Saudi Arabia point to the importance of broad and ambitious reform initiatives.
Many of the female leaders worldwide that we worked with/interviewed or met, all are highly educated and have their own vision of what they want to accomplish, with much of this honouring, supporting and shaping their countries’ overarching economic strategies. But they themselves have their own visions and their own way of doing things. They have strong personalities, and one thing they all share is persistence, because much of the day-to-day work of leadership and immense responsibility to make things happen is very challenging.
Prevailing social norms and legal restrictions remain the most stubborn barriers to women’s success. There are still far too many legal restrictions on women that impact their social and economic participation. Without eliminating these restrictions and indeed legislating against future restrictions of any kind that discriminate against women, policymakers cannot create the necessary environment to level the playing field, narrow the pay gap, eradicate violence against women, address poverty that disproportionally affects women and children, and ensure full gender parity for men and women in the eyes of the law.
Quality of education is the most fundamental factor in empowering female leadership to be able to thrive and shape their world. Modern education should focus on problem solving, independent thinking, learning to learn and self-regulation, self-efficacy and collaboration, the ability to negotiate, to lead in smaller settings on specific projects, and of course to interject their work with their creativity and humanity. Soft skills are paramount for a gender inclusive workforce of the future.
Throughout the region, there are many exceptionally talented, well-educated, and resilient young women, so the low representation of women at board level, in the workforce, in parliament, in entrepreneurship or in continuous education and capacity-building is certainly not due to lack of qualified candidates. It is not for lack of cadre. This is where public policymakers and the private sector must collaborate to generate innovative new, out-of-the-box, strategic solutions to navigate persistent gender gaps in the region and empower young women leaders with the opportunities to succeed, progress and prosper, both in the private sector and in public service.
This blog post is part of the research project Understanding Barriers and Enablers to Women’s Leadership in Sudan, which is in partnership with IEL International and University of Khartoum. Dr Souad Mohamed is Principal Investigator on the project with Dr Tyseer Elhadi Omer.