World over, many aspects of gender inequality continue to persist. Women face higher risks of death at birth and throughout their life cycle. Women are under-represented in schools, jobs, boardrooms and parliaments. Women continue to earn less than equally qualified men. In many cases, women have less power to make decisions and choices about their lives even within their homes. Many of these persistent gender gaps are still evident even in the developed world.
In the Middle East and North Africa, there is little difference between girls and boys in education or health outcomes. In fact, young women in the region are more educated than young men and aspire to work and participate fully in society. Even in a small mountainside village in Yemen, adolescent girls aspire to work when they are older and want to be "A teacher. A lawyer. An engineer. A broadcaster." As we are all witnessing in the wake of the Arab Spring, young men and women across the region are clamoring for greater economic opportunities and more inclusive and accountable governments.
But young people in the region are facing high rates of unemployment and women are bearing the brunt of these limited job opportunities. Despite being highly educated, women’s rates of participation in the workforce are very low. Some may argue that these rates reflect women’s choice not to work. I think not.
After all, rates of participation in the workforce do not count women who have long searched for a job to no avail, or did not get permission to look for work, or did not find “suitable” opportunities. Even among the few who continue to look for work, few find employment. Young women in the region face stratospheric rates of unemployment, up to 40 percent in some countries. In the face of such overwhelming odds, I would be discouraged too and stop looking for work.
So if we agree that something other than choice is clearly at work, it is imperative to understand what is at work and how to move from thinking equal to being equal. I think there is a need to move on several fronts. Without substantial efforts to create new, quality jobs, led by a dynamic private sector, women will continue to be excluded from economic opportunities. Easing some of the legal and regulatory constraints to women’s mobility and choice, as some countries in the region have already done, could go a long way. To the extent that employers perceive women as less productive or more expensive, targeted programs that motivate firms to take a chance on hiring female workers, like internships, may help change these perceptions. Helping women balance work and family life - through flexible work, better child care options, and improving opportunities for entrepreneurship- is also important. There is no simple answer to what is clearly a complex challenge for the region as a whole. The first step is to start talking and to motivate change, as the young women in the region are now doing.