Demography and Women's Empowerment: Urgency for Action? | Wilson Center

Demography and Women's Empowerment: Urgency for Action?

Why do Middle Eastern women participate in economic life at a rate inferior to that of female citizens of other regions, and why should they be empowered to participate at a greater level? According to Nadereh Chamlou, women of the Middle East remain so poorly represented in economic life today because of restrictive social norms. Chamlou remarked that the region's women must be empowered to participate in a more significant way if their countries are to effectively exploit, instead of squander, the current economic "window of opportunity."

On September 13, 2010 the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Chamlou, a senior advisor at the World Bank. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Chamlou began her presentation by illustrating the demographic realities of the Middle East. According to her analysis of its population structure, the region is facing a "demographic window of opportunity"—a favorable analysis that means Middle Eastern countries, with their relatively high numbers of working-age people, have the potential for rapid economic growth. Whatever hopes such an analysis might engender, however, are put to an end when one realizes Middle Eastern countries have the highest dependency rates in the world. The reason: women's economic participation in Middle Eastern economies is significantly lower relative to female citizens' participation in other regions of the world. Thus, the Middle East's demographic composition will not be exploited to its full advantage.

Chamlou continued her discussion by disputing the commonly held reasons for the historic, continued lack of female participation in the Middle East's economic sphere. It is often assumed, she remarked, that women abstain from joining the workforce because they do not possess the necessary education and skills to enter it. However, this is proven false by statistics that show that the region's women are represented at a near-equal level as men in secondary school and to an even greater degree at the university level. They are also studying in marketable fields, disproving the theory that though the percentage of women being educated has markedly increased, the skills they have acquired have not made them more employable.

Chamlou explained the main reason for women's low economic participation has the most to do with social norms. She cited a study conducted by the World Bank in three Middle Eastern capital cities—Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; and Sana'a, Yemen—that showed that the negative male attitude regarding women working outside the home was the most significant reason for poor female representation in the workforce. Notably, social norms and such negative male attitudes proved to restrict women's participation far more than the need to attend to child-rearing duties. Despite the successful efforts of most Middle Eastern states to improve educationally, conservative social norms that pose a barrier to female empowerment remain in place.

Chamlou critiqued efforts to economically empower struggling lower-class women or those that are unemployed but well-educated to the exclusion of the broad middle-class. She concluded her remarks with three policy recommendations: 1) to focus on medium-educated, middle-class women; 2) to undertake more efforts to bring married women into the workforce; and 3) to place a greater emphasis on changing attitudes, particularly among conservative younger men, towards women working outside the home. Such changes taking root could result in the Middle East's demographic window of opportunity being more effectively utilized.

Drafted by Luke Hagberg.