First Jobs for Young Women in the Middle East & North Africa: Expectations and Reality

Education For Employment (EFE)
Resource Type: 
Publication Date: 
Nov, 2015

With one in four young people unable to secure a job, youth unemployment is widely regarded as a defining challenge of the MENA region. Young women are particularly affected: in many countries in MENA female youth unemployment rates exceed 40%.

 Despite decades of regional advancements that have improved gender equality in education, less than one in three women in MENA is in the labor force. The figure is half the global average for female labor force participation, which has reached nearly 50%.

In the next decades, an estimated 50 million women will come of working age in the MENA region. Beyond providing dignity and financial independence, raising the Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP) rate to country-specific male levels could produce dramatic economic gains. Estimates suggest that full equality in labor markets in MENA could boost regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 47% over the next ten years, and MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually, or $2.7 trillion by 2025 (in 2014 dollars).

Although a diverse set of nations comprise the MENA region, high rates of unemployment among young women reflect the convergence of two shared, pressing issues: the youth unemployment challenge, and low rates of FLFP.

Many issues that young women jobseekers face are shared by their male peers in the region. Coming of working age amid the “youth bulge,” today, young women and men alike confront lackluster economic growth and job creation rates. While education systems graduate larger number of students than ever before, quality remains a persistent problem and students struggle to reconcile the rote learning of their academic studies with the practical skills and workplace etiquette required to secure and retain a job. Many MENA youth of both genders face deeply-entrenched systems of nepotism or wasta that restrict access to employment opportunities. Powerful family expectations and a legacy of public sector employment disincentivize many youth from pursuing entrepreneurship or opportunities in the private sector, while those young people who do seek private sector employment commonly contend with a business community resistant to hiring young candidates with limited work experience.

Although both young women and their male counterparts face these challenges, it is widely accepted that some of these factors are experienced more acutely by young women, and that young women confront additional barriers as they transition into the labor market. For instance, the female youth unemployment rate is almost three times the male youth unemployment rate in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, with a 65% female youth unemployment rate in Egypt, and a 50% female youth unemployment rate in Yemen and Jordan.

For decades, national governments, multilateral agencies and the international development community have examined the elements that contribute to the region’s low FLFP rates. Such studies point to a constellation of factors that prevent or discourage women from entering and remaining in the workforce. Low rates of legal and political gender equality; discriminatory hiring and compensation practices and inhospitable work environments; and scarcity of female role models in professional leadership positions are frequently cited culprits. Research has also suggested that socio-cultural norms and sensitivities are an important factor, with traditional gender roles reinforced in some environments at an early stage in a manner that may influence a women’s decisions around work as she matures.

Notably, much of the existing research is generalized across working-age women, and does not address special circumstances and factors that relate to young women in particular. It is unclear the extent to which factors that influence the preferences of middle-aged or older women are a reliable indication of those that influence younger women. This is particularly salient given significant and relatively recent shifts in access to education, technological innovation, globalization, regional instability and demographics.

These transformations, some of them dramatic, situate young female job seekers in a unique context. When they consider entering the job market, what expectations and assumptions shape their transition? How do these compare with the expectations and assumptions of young women who are already in the labor force, and to those – both female and male – who are in a position to hire them?

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Workforce Development
Middle East & North Africa