The experience of globalization has not been universal due to externally imposed economic restrictions that not only limit countries' access to international markets and interaction with the global economy but that may also have gender and class implications, according to economics professor Jennifer Olmsted. By looking at the case studies of Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, Olmsted examined the possible gendered effects of economic isolation within the framework of globalization.

The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Olmsted, Associate Professor of Economics at Drew University, on "Gender and Economic Isolation in an Era of Globalization" on April 22, 2010. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Olmsted opened her presentation by reviewing the causes, benefits, and risks of globalization as well as relevant gender and globalization literature to provide context and to summarize the theory behind her research. She then discussed relevant gender and sanction literature, noting that theory is not clear as to whether increased poverty as a result of sanctions will increase or decrease female labor force participation. Drawing upon International Labor Organization (ILO) data, Olmsted displayed female employment trends throughout the Middle East and offered particular insight into the three case studies.

Explaining the effect of sanctions on women in Iraq has been difficult, Olmsted indicated, because micro-level labor force data for Iraq is unavailable. She did note that educated women who worked in the public sector have left the labor market because of declining wages and benefits packages while uneducated women have been forced into the market because of economic hardship.

Although the Palestinian data reveals a flat rate of female labor force participation, Olmsted argued that there were multiple trends at work including educated women's increasing presence in the government sector, less educated women's declining employment overall, and women's return to the unpaid agriculture sector. She also pointed to the "defeminization" of the healthcare industry as a result of more men entering health professions for lack of other economic opportunities, thus demonstrating a "crowding out effect." Furthermore, Olmsted discussed the role of gender norms and the impact of internal and external policies on female employment in Palestine.

Olmsted indicated that Iran has presented an interesting case because female labor force participation initially drops following the 1979 Revolution; this has been attributed to several factors including declining employment in the manufacturing sector, shrinking public sector employment, as well as state policy of imposed dress code. However, in spite of sanctions, female employment has, in fact, increased both in the formal and the informal sector. While Olmsted noted that the role of ideology is important to consider in Iran, she also stressed the need to examine the effect of sanctions and migration patterns.

In addition to studying sanctions as a form of economic isolation, Olmsted maintained that it is instructive to also review a country's economic structure in order to explain variations in female labor force participation. Olmsted concluded with a discussion of the potential for further research.

By Kendra Heideman, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program