Updated: Feb 6
by Yasmeen Shahzadeh
Paeradigms’ 21 July blog post described how youth in Jordan experience remarkably high unemployment rates compared to their counterparts in the region and globally, with 40% of 20 – 24-year olds unemployed (Jordanian Department of Statistics, 2020). This unemployment rate is particularly high among university graduates. Unemployment in Jordan is critically high among women: while labour force participation for men over 15 is 54.8%, it is merely 14% for women (Department of Statistics, 2020).
Sustained inclusive economic growth requires gender balance in the workforce.
Interestingly, more women than men are enrolled in tertiary education in Jordan (World Bank Data, 2020). However, unemployment and labour force participation rates show that women’s transition from education to employment is much more challenging. The belief that completing higher education results in better employment opportunities does not hold true in Jordan and is especially false for women graduates in the country (Al Khatib, 2020). Why is this happening?
Photo courtesy of Alexis Brown
Barriers for Jordanian women entering the workforce
Two phenomena put forward by Suad Joseph (1996) give insights about the situation in Jordan regarding women in the workforce. The first is social patriarchy, the fact that social structures in the Middle East are defined through male lineage – and this patrilineage defines kinship, family structures, and social life, establishing male dominance in the household. The second is economic patriarchy, whereby men are responsible for family finances, are economically active and in control of resources (See IRCKHF, 2019). Social and economic patriarchies work together to create significant barriers to entry for women in the workforce. For example, beyond the shortage of available jobs for university graduates, young men are often prioritised in the labour market. Women’s work is seen as less important, as their primary responsibility is assumed to be the household. Related to this, employers believe that male employees tend to be more committed to their jobs and are cheaper to employ compared to women who could prioritise their families, leave their jobs for their children, or incur maternity and childcare costs (ILO, 2017; Al Khatib, 2020). Also, many women are only allowed to work on the condition that their father or husband approves (IRCKHF, 2019). As the social and economic patriarchs, men can further prevent women from entering the workforce.
Workplace discrimination extends beyond just hiring. Article 72 of the Jordanian Labour Law states that employers with a certain number of female employees with children under the age of 4 must provide childcare in the workplace. However, this law is not enforced for small to medium sized businesses with fewer than 20 female employees - meaning that two thirds of businesses in Jordan are exempt (UN WOMEN, 2018). The lack of childcare is a significant barrier to working for women with families and their absence keeps the number of women employees beneath the threshold for businesses to provide child-care – these two factors are dependent on each other and both must be addressed together to see real change (Brookings, 2018).
Socio-cultural barriers inhibit women, including those who have completed higher education, from entering the workforce. According to a report on gender discrimination by the IRCKHF (2019), social value systems predominant in Jordan limit the role of women to motherhood, family, and few ‘acceptable’ professions. Most women who do work are located in fields such as education and healthcare, which have become feminised, underpaid and certainly undervalued, with women continuing to earn significantly less than men in these sectors and across the board. Additionally, this report points out that the proportion of women working continuously decreases as they age. This suggests that women typically do not gain enough experience to occupy leadership roles, due to socio-cultural barriers as well as the previously mentioned preference for hiring men.
Women refugees in Jordan
Women refugees in Jordan experience an added barrier: legal challenges. Syrian refugees are only granted work permits for specific sectors in Jordan, which include construction, manufacturing, the service sector, and agriculture. This translates to low employment rates: a report by WANA Institute (2018) indicates that just 8% of Syrian women are employed outside the home, either full time or part time. These legal barriers intersect with social and economic challenges in similar ways. Many of the fields open for refugees are socially unacceptable for women: one refugee writes that while she was offered a position in textile manufacturing, the factory was a mixed gender working environment and thus she was unable to take the job (Ammourah, 2019). Syrian women surveyed explain that the working conditions were unacceptable because they are mixed-gendered, and some women even described employment as dangerous because of long commutes, harassment, and hazardous working conditions in the factories or farms where refugees are permitted to work.
There are other factors that further exacerbate this already difficult cultural setting for women who wish to work. First, the economic slowdown due to COVID-19 has a greater impact on marginalised communities, including women. Before the pandemic crisis, the country estimated a 19.3% unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2020, already witnessing economic decline. This figure will certainly rise in the face of lockdowns and the resulting business closures. It is important to recognise how lockdown measures disproportionately affect women and other vulnerable populations. Many women refugees work precariously or in the informal economy and have thus been unable to generate any income in the wake of the lockdown and gradual reopening. Women who already work are forced to take on more household and childcare responsibilities.
Second, there is a well-known skills mismatch in the labour force (see Paeradigms blog post on 2020.07.21 for details) that places women at a further disadvantage. The majority of Jordanian private sector employers seek to fill lower-skilled or manual labourers, positions that do not match the skill qualifications for tertiary educated youth in the first place, and these manual labour or even service industry jobs are deemed socially unacceptable for women (Al Khatib, 2020). Thus, only men are considered eligible. While more factories and initiatives seek to bring women into the manufacturing and service sectors, progress has slowed recently as pandemic restrictions limit production and employment.
Prior to the pandemic, all these barriers existed – the social and economic patriarchy, the economic downturn and the skills mismatch. Amidst reports that COVID-19 will widen the gender justice gap (Okoro & Prettitore, 2020), gender mainstreaming and advocacy in training and employment programs is necessary to support women entering the workforce.
Promoting Women’s Employment
Market-driven demands for medium to low skilled labour invoke the need to invest in technical and vocational education and training (TVET). TVET creates pathways to enter the workforce by directly addressing the skills mismatch that affects women of all ages. Raising awareness of TVET and the resulting employment opportunities can help youth better understand their options. Such a demand-driven approach to promoting youth and women’s employment is important to ensure their readiness to enter the competitive job market. In line with this, it is essential to improve the status of TVET in Jordan since it is typically associated with low pay and low status work. Combatting the ‘culture of shame’ that surrounds vocational work can encourage youth, and especially women, to seek out careers where they can find employment (JIF, 2019).
Moreover, supporting employers across the board to create safe working conditions and inclusive spaces for women is crucial, and can even combat existing social barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce. This includes a focus on labour rights, social security benefits, occupational health and safety standards, on-site day care centres, and safe transportation to and from work. Achieving inclusive work environments requires greater monitoring and cooperation on behalf of government agencies and employers to ensure compliance with safety regulations and inclusive environment standards.
Increasing the participation of women in the workforce is a necessary step to creating an inclusive and overall more productive economy. Responding to market demands for specific kinds of labour can support women’s long-term employability and equip them with skills and competencies that will have an impact on their lives and livelihoods for years to come.
Yasmeen Shahzadeh is a field researcher and academic from Amman, Jordan. She recently completed her MA from McGill University in Education & Society, with a concentration in Gender & Women’s Studies. Yasmeen’s research interests lie at the intersection of development, gender, and education. She is currently the Director of Volunteer Recruitment at Paper Airplanes, an international non-profit organisation that provides online learning for refugees, and a researcher on the From Education to Employment study in Jordan, at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, with support from the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN).
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