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The 60th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women wrapped up in New York, United States, last week, with a call for a “gender-responsive approach” to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. States should “recommit” to their pledges on gender equality, said UN Women director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka — pledges where women’s employment rights and labour access feature heavily.
But beyond such proclamations, what will it take to achieve the 50:50 world activists strive for, and how can businesses play their part?
People come at debates on women in the workplace from different, often conflicting, angles. For many decades, development economists and gender economists have argued that bringing women into the workforce is a key stimulant of economic growth. Because research has historically shown that educating women increases their access to jobs, many development organisations have focused on investments in girls’ and women’s education as the ticket to broader economic empowerment.
“Employers should establish industry-wide, women-only mentoring conferences and give employees time off from work to attend them.”
Maha Rafi Atal
But that approach may be oversimplistic. Recent research suggests that even where women match men in educational attainment, barriers to equal employment remain and limit the developmental value of women’s education. And while culture can explain some of this gap, employers have a role to play too.
The Arab world is a case in point. The Brookings Institution reports that women in the Arab world are now matching or surpassing men in academic achievement. A World Bank report on women in science in Jordan found similar results: over two-thirds of graduates in the natural sciences and medicine are women. Across the region, women now outnumber men in science courses — subjects traditionally dominated by men.
Yet these reports conclude that educational gains are not translating into jobs, echoing a 2012 Gallup report showing two-thirds of young Arab women remain outside the workforce. They attribute the gap to social norms that emphasise early marriage and childrearing, and argue that government policy can help change patriarchal cultures that keep women at home.
But if families in the Arab world are choosing to educate their girls and young women to university level, then culture is already changing.
Women’s own ambitions don’t seem to be the barrier. For example, a World Bank survey of Jordanian women leaving tertiary education showed that 76 per cent of them intended to work full-time.
Something other than cultural hang-ups keep women who complete these courses from professional success — three other reasons, in fact.
First, the last few years have been tough economically worldwide, but particularly in resource-rich states in the Middle East. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has shown that women are more likely than men to be fired or have their hours cut when jobs are scarce.  Employers are often called upon to pursue gender-equal hiring policies, but they should also be encouraged to consider the gender imbalances of retrenchment policy.Second, Middle Eastern countries lag behind global and developing country averages for spending on family benefits such as paid parental leave or childcare. The IMF study also found that countries in this region spend less than 0.1 per cent of GDP on such policies.  Both employers and governments need to substantially increase that amount if women’s employment is to rise.
Third, lack of female professional achievement can be self-fulfilling. Where women lack role models or mentors, navigating the job market can be daunting. Employers should establish industry-wide, women-only mentoring conferences and give employees time off from work to attend them. In sectors with few senior women in the Arab world, virtual mentoring courses such as TechWomen can help.
Maha Rafi Atal is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, where she is researching the political effects of multinational firms acting as public service providers in the developing world. She was previously a journalist, including at Forbes, where she covered the intersection of business, development and international affairs. You can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @MahaRafiAtal