Arab Women’s Work Engagement

Arab Women’s Work Engagement


While it is difficult to find academic studies on how gender plays a role in organizational behavior, what is even more difficult is to locate how gender affects employee engagement in the Arab world. Drawing on literature from multiple Arab countries and focusing specifically on Jordan, Muntaha Banihani and Jawad Syed analyze how macro-national factors affect Arab women’s work engagement. Macro-national factors comprise economic, socio-cultural, and legal frameworks that affect Arab women’s level of engagement in the workplace.

Economically, the Arab world is heterogeneous, with the GDPs of oil-rich countries much higher than the rest. In this economic milieu of the Middle East, 43.9% women are unemployed (as opposed to 22.9% male unemployment). In Jordan, where the literacy rate has risen impressively from 46% in 1990 to 85% in 2012, and where more women than men attend universities, women’s participation in the workplace is abysmally low at 23% (as opposed to 77% participation by men), to the extent that once corrected for educational attainment, female participation in the workplace is actually on the decline. In general, Arab women are predominantly found in lower-level jobs. And they usually find employment only in select professions like education and social care.

Why is it the case that while female education is on the rise in the Arab world, female employment is on the decline? Some socio-cultural factors help explain this. The ideas that the onus of preserving the family as a unit falls upon women, that the man solely is responsible for providing for the family, and that the women have to observe modesty, set the stage for men getting priority over women in the workplace. Also relevant is the stereotype that a man needs a job to provide for the whole family, while a woman’s role is primarily that of a homemaker. Women also face restrictions on their everyday mobility in many parts of the Arab world. Some of these restrictions arise from cultural stereotypes; some take the form of written law.

Laws in many Arab countries take a serious toll on women’s participation and engagement in the workplace. For instance, the Labor Law in the UAE places specific restrictions only on women: these include women not being allowed to work at nights, to take up jobs that could be perceived as hazardous to their safety, and to work without the consent of their male guardians. In many Arab countries, while the laws mandate maternity and childcare benefits for women in the workplace, they place the onus of these benefits on the employer, thereby discouraging them from hiring women in the first place. The laws lack in other respects as well. For instance, the Jordanian regulatory framework does not prohibit sexual harassment. Examples like these abound, making it difficult for women to engage meaningfully in the workforce, many a time not at all.
Considering how important female engagement in the workforce is to the overall development of a society and a country, policy-makers and executives need to take account of the factors that limit it, and advance policies, both at organizational and national levels, that remove these limits and allow women to engage more productively at the workplace. It can only work to the advantage of the economy. And while the realities of different countries in the Arab world—and even of countries like Pakistan—may differ on the exact factors that restrict women’s work engagement, careful yet important lessons can be drawn from them for the benefit of all.

Reference: Banihani, M. & Syed, J. (2017). A macro-national level analysis of Arab women’s work engagement. European Management Review, 14(2), 133–142.
doi: 10.1111/emre.12095