Based on figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO), at least 90 million women in the Middle East and North Africa are today part of what has been called the “Third Billion”, which is the approximate number of women worldwide who will be claiming their place as employees, producers and entrepreneurs in the global economy by 2030.
Until now, these women have been excluded from economic empowerment by either lack of opportunities or insufficient preparedness. Projected to number around 865 million by 2020, most of these women live in emerging and developing nations. The impact of this geographically dispersed group will be so large — equivalent to that of the billion-plus populations of China and India — that they have been dubbed the Third Billion.
The Third Billion was calculated by combining the forecast for “not prepared” and/or “not enabled” women globally between the ages of 20 and 65 in 2020. “Prepared” refers to having received a sufficient education, usually secondary school. Opportunities for basic education and literacy are prerequisites to women’s economic empowerment. “Enabled” refers to having sufficient social and political support to engage with the labor market. This support spans family, logistical, legal, and financial parameters.
The MENA's missing share
It is not surprising that more than 10 percent, or about double of the region’s share in world population, of the Third Billion live in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The World Bank places the female labor force participation rate in the MENA at just 26 percent, the lowest of any region globally. Although women have achieved equal, or better, education levels compared to men in most MENA countries, they are not making similar gains at work.
In entrepreneurship, too, women have not caught up. The World Bank estimates that women own just 20 percent of MENA companies, compared to 32 percent in countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and 39 percent percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Women must have the freedom to participate in the workforce and ultimately advance to senior positions to reach their economic potential. They should have the same opportunities as men to start their own companies. As long as women have limited economic opportunities, Middle Eastern countries will be unable to join the modern global economy.
The World Bank argues if rates of female participation in the labor force increased to levels predicted by women’s education, age, and fertility, average household earnings would increase by as much as 25 percent. For many families, that is the ticket to the middle class. If female participation rates had been at these predicted levels, per capita gross domestic product growth rates might have been up to 35 percent higher, according to the World Bank.
Entrenched gender roles
The environment in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country, is fluid. Women organized in a remarkable way during and after the 2011 revolution. They have since been vocal in demanding new reforms and have sought to defend previous social and economic gains. While the near-term in Egypt is hard to predict, what is clear is that Egyptian women are underrepresented in the workforce. The female participation rate was just 24 percent in 2010. Egyptian women cluster in a few sectors: agriculture, education, public administration, health and social work.
Some governments are attempting to redress the economic and workplace balance to assist female participation. Saudi Arabia is trying to integrate women into the workforce at a pace that balances economic needs with social norms. Legislation on workplace requirements is evolving to allow women and men in the same facility. Oftentimes, however, the legacies of old laws and traditions prevent female participation. There is a strong feeling within the private sector that it can be simpler for companies to retain all-male workforces than to pay for buildings that accommodate mixed gender staffs or to tackle potential resistance to female workers.
As a result, although women constitute 57 percent of Saudi Arabia’s university graduates, the participation rate of female nationals was just 12 percent in 2009. Women in the workforce often congregate in the public sector, despite government encouragement of a more vibrant, inclusive private sector. Women tend to focus on education and health because of gender perceptions and the lack of career guidance.
While each country has unique challenges, several approaches can apply regionally. To this end, Booz & Company has created the Third Billion Index, which ranks 128 developing and developing countries. The index highlights how countries have fostered economic opportunities for women, and where they can improve. To make the index relevant for ranked countries, we offer concrete recommendations. For MENA countries in particular, we see great potential in following these recommendations.
How to advance women
The first recommendation is for government-private sector partnerships to draw women into the workforce. Experience demonstrates that government mandates alone will not be effective. Forcing women into work without the necessary skills and workplace policies will damage productivity and could create an employer backlash.
At the same time, a clear official signal that female workforce integration is a priority can catalyze corporate commitment and investment. Together, government and enterprises can reinforce each other’s desire to promote female inclusion.
Second, governments and companies that employ women should establish mentoring programs. Men already benefit from informal ties, the “old boys’ network.” Mentoring programs can connect young women entering the workforce with successful women who have already broken in. We should not underestimate the power that role models, along with advice and encouragement from career women, can give to younger women entering the male-dominated workplace.
An example of such mentoring comes from the Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Fund for Women's Development. Over 1,300 women have gone through the fund’s various training programs. Similarly, the fund has provided finance to 40 female entrepreneurs. The result of these initiatives is that women have gone on to start businesses and create more than 200 jobs. Women’s business networks can also fill an important information gap on the economic status, education needs, and social roles of women. Governments, the private sector, and not-for-profits should collect this evidence-based data collaboratively. They can pool feedback to design high-impact programs.
In the United Arab Emirates, the Khalifa Fund in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders in Dubai, and Sharjah Tatweer Forum are providing such information — although their focus is not solely on women. Such organizations need to be better staffed and funded, have wider geographic coverage, and should network to share knowledge.
Third, governments and companies should examine success stories and innovative methods of bringing women into the workforce.
One example is Bupa Arabia. The company, a provider of health insurance products and services in Saudi Arabia, has a 40 percent female staff after a decade’s effort. The health insurance provider broke with stereotypes and partnered with the government to train women in job skills. By employing women in all departments — finance, human resources, information technology, operations, regulatory affairs and sales — the firm dispensed with the notion of “women’s work” that elsewhere confines them to supporting roles. Indeed, the company now has an all-female telesales team. This is good business — female customers in the healthcare market prefer female sales agents.
In Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and the UAE, there is now a corporate funded program called the Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Project. The project is run by AMIDEAST, a US educational institute. Funded by the Citi Foundation and leveraging the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute’s training program, the Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Project will provide education and mentoring to 80 women entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Fourth, companies and governments should turn social restrictions into opportunities for commerce and innovation. For example, Ataalam in Saudi Arabia has created a women’s virtual learning environment to allow women to study from home. The company is a female-owned private venture that arose from a Saudi government-sponsored innovation incubator named “BADIR.”
Combining these approaches can have an immediate impact on employment and skills building. Today, hard-working, high-profile women are chipping away at the “cement ceiling” and making it possible for others to do the same. Similarly, multi-sector cooperation will result in further success stories and role models that can alter mindsets and inspire young women. With more women at work, the Middle East can achieve its economic potential.