Efforts are underway to convince more companies in the region of the clear benefits of hiring more women. But will it be enough?
Dina al Wakeel
Citigroup Inc. recently estimated that significant reductions in workplace gender inequalities could lead to a possible 6 percent growth in GDP in advanced economies in one to two decades. It could be even higher for emerging markets.
Closer to home, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 ranked Jordan 135 out of 144 countries. The report measures each country’s gender gap across four thematic dimensions— Educational Attainment, Economic Participation and Opportunity, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment.
Although Jordan’s advancements in women’s education is commendable, there remains huge shortfalls in the remaining dimensions which justify the Kingdom’s low ranking compared to the rest of the world. At 13 percent, female participation in the Jordanian workforce is even lower than that of the region, which stands at approximately 20 percent.
According to the report, MENA’s best-performing countries in this year’s index were Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. They have managed to close between 65 percent and 63 percent of their overall gender gaps, said the report.
Yet the region remains in the bottom on the overall index, behind South Asia.
To address this gender gap in Jordan and the region, the GIZ— the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit—established the Economic Integration of Women in the MENA Region program (EconoWin) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The program operates across Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt where it aims to improve the conditions for the economic integration of women.
EconoWin directly cooperates with private companies in order to improve their management of gender diversity with an ultimate objective of helping them to recruit and retain more women. “With the EconoWin project, we as GIZ are doing very pragmatic work in all of the four countries in terms of directly cooperating with all types of private companies,” said Hildegard Vogelmann, EconoWin’s program director. “What we do on a very concrete ground is open up career opportunities [for women] through HR policies, which are not yet in place.”
The program is currently working with 17 businesses across the four countries. In Jordan this includes the Landmark Hotel, Umniah, and Dar Al Omran, the architecture and engineering firm.
To maximize their learning experiences on how they can best improve gender diversity management, EconoWin provides peer-to-peer partnerships between Arab and European companies. Last month, the GIZ invited representatives from these companies to attend a workshop as well as peer-to-peer sessions in Germany titled “When Women Work, Economies Win.”
According to Vogelmann, the differences between Arab and European companies, particularly German, are thought-provoking. While Jordan and Tunisia are considered much more advanced in the IT sector in particular, they evidently lag behind in other sectors such as tourism, which struggles to recruit and retain female workforce due to cultural issues.
But despite the difficulties they face in some sectors, the GIZ has successfully worked to increase female participation in an architecture consultancy firm by 12 percent in the frame of one year thanks to a change in policies, such as more flexible work schemes that help women not only establish a career on a better base but also achieve a work-family balance.
Providing a decent legal infrastructure that could boost women’s participation in MENA’s economies seems to be lacking in some parts of the region.
Gender and Private Sector Specialist at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Sammar Essmat, said the legal system in some Arab countries posed a clear obstacle to advancing women’s participation in the workforce.
“Let’s be candid about it: there are legal obstacles that exist in Arab countries that don’t exist in other countries,” Essmat told Venture. “When you look at the laws of countries around the globe, you will find that the Middle East is one of the regions that has the largest number of laws that are differentiated by gender; things that are allowed for men may not be allowed for women and whether this is in the personal space or not, it will always have an effect on the ability of women to be economically active.”
It’s not just about the restrictions and the barriers, added Essmat, but it’s also the lack of incentive mechanisms. She cited fiscal incentives that some countries extend to companies that have a high proportion of women in their workforce as a way to boost women’s employment, something that is also lacking in this part of the world.
Other countries also provide a quota for public contracts when it comes to sourcing from companies, such as stipulating that at least 10 percent of subcontractors are owned or led by women.
Furthermore, legal barriers do not only refer to the letter of the law, stressed Essmat, but also enforcement and enactment. “You might have a law that on paper is gender blind or gender neutral but the way it is being enforced by civil servants or government officials shows a bias or even an outright discrimination against women,” she said.
Vogelmann believes the real challenge lies in applying these rules and laws. One example, she said, is in Egypt where a law was issued that stipulates that a company is bound to provide maternity leave if it has 100 employees or more. To avoid this, some companies make a point of hiring just 99.
Although they might play a key role in holding women back, legal barriers are not the only factor that is limiting women’s economic participation. One important factor could also be the lack of day care facilities for their infants in or around their workplace.
To tackle this particular issue, SADAQA, a non-profit organization, was founded in 2011 by a group of working parents. SADAQA partnered with the ILO and the Ministry of Labor to establish day care facilities in the workplace for working parents, not just for the mothers but for the fathers as well.
Soon after they started working with the Ministry of Labor to enforce Article 72 in the Labor Law—which states that if a company employs 20 women or more with at least 10 children under the age of four then they needed to provide a day care facility in their premises—they soon found that many obstacles stood in the way of its implementation.
“With time we found out that the majority of companies in Jordan are facing challenges while trying to abide by the article; either they don’t have the space or the place is not safe enough,” said Reem Aslan, gender, management and international development senior consultant at ILO and cofounder of SADAQA. This particularly includes pharmaceutical companies, where it could be unsafe to host children, or banks that have special security measures.
For these reasons, SADAQA came up with a number of models that a company can apply when establishing a day care.
According to Aslan, it could be in a shared location in the same geographic location but outside the business; this means that a number of banks or hospitals can establish a joint day care facility. Another option is to subcontract a third party such as a cooperative, a civil society organization, or even a commercial day care facility which also has to be in the same geographical area. A third model is for the companies to provide working parents with a voucher in case they prefer to have their child in a day care that is closer to home or even closer to the grandparents house. SADAQA is also working on creating home-based day care facilities. But this also needs special regulations to be drafted and enacted, explained Aslan.
So how successful have they been? According to Aslan, around 52 new day care facilities have been established since SADAQA started working on enforcing Article 72 in companies or through applying a different model. But they still have a long way ahead to convince almost 1,000 large businesses in the Kingdom that Article 72 applies to of the benefits of providing day care facilities for their female workers. They were particularly successful with the education sector, which already has the infrastructure and the space for day cares. But, with the banks it was more challenging.
“Again because some of them have been operating for 30 years especially in [busy areas] like Shmeisani, it’s harder for them to provide the service inside the banks and besides that, the Central Bank has their own regulations,” said Aslan.
Factories in the QIZs have also been more challenging. Aslan says SADAQA managed to convince the satellite ones, which are closer to residential areas, but not those operating in remote special economic zones.
While both SADAQA and the GIZ are playing a role in the advancement of women in the workplace, the IFC is also doing its part. Essmat believes by being the largest investor in emerging markets that aims to create a positive development and change, the IFC can play a key role in increasing the number of women in the Arab workplace.
While investing in companies, the IFC engages with them in conversations about their stance on gender equality and equity, if their business models help to create gender gaps and the negative impact of that on their businesses, while helping them to think of ways to close these gaps.
One group of companies they work closely with is banks, which they stimulate to provide financing products to women who are largely neglected when lending is provided. “We work with banks to help them understand what it means to reach out to women borrowers and provide financial products customized to them,” explained Essmat.
In Jordan, the IFC also has a joint program with the ILO where they work with companies in QIZs on improving working and labor conditions and making sure they are women-friendly.
Despite all these efforts, a lot remains to be done to convince Arab companies of the importance and the economic value of employing more women and convincing Arab females themselves of the importance of pursuing a career.
Vogelmann believes what’s missing is career orientation and mentorship for young females in the region.
“Even though the figures tell a different story, in academia now, we have more than 50 percent female students, nevertheless, the formal education as such does not promote a kind of self-willingness to create a career. And this phenomenon is the same as Europe,” said Vogelmann. “I also think that societies are not in favor of female employment due to political developments as well and I believe that there is a trend backwards when I talk about Egypt for example; one can see that clearly and I think it has to do with education as well.”
As for promoting female employment within Arab companies, SADAQA is hoping government incentives will provide the much-needed stimulus to female employment. After a study they carried out on the telecom sector revealed the cost of establishing a day care could reach around $1 million, SADAQA is now moving beyond Article 72 because they felt with small and medium sized enterprises it would be unfair to put all the burden on them. This is why they are lobbying with the government to chip in, either by providing a tax break for the companies that provide such a service or to provide other incentives like an awarding system that the ministry already applies in the garments sector only, said Aslan.
For their part, the GIZ plans to expand their network of companies in the region to reach 24 by the end of next year. They are also planning to start working with family-owned businesses to promote gender diversity.
While Essmat believes businesses in the region are now slightly more aware of the importance of female employment, she thinks they are still not aware enough.
“We can work with companies directly but one of the important roles that we have is that at the more higher sector level and at the macro-economic level, it is our responsibility to create more awareness and understanding among businesses about the gaps and the barriers that exist for women employment and the benefits of addressing those barriers and getting more women into the workforce.”