Published on Arab Voices

Jordan NOW: randomized experiment designed to boost female labor force participation

The low participation rates of women in the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), lower than any other region in the world, has puzzled analysts for some time. A number of competing causes have been identified, ranging from Islam and geography to natural resource wealth and the character of MENA institutions. Yet what’s missing from the debate so far is an analysis of the microeconomic constraints limiting women from entering the workforce. And even more importantly, there’s been a distinct lack of any kind of analysis of what would be needed to provide women in MENA with more employment opportunities.

World BankThe Jordan NOW pilot seeks to fill these gaps through a rigorous evaluation of a wage subsidy and soft skills training program targeted at female community college graduates. In July 2010, 1350 women from eight public community colleges throughout Jordan took part in a lottery which awarded   wage subsidy vouchers  and opportunities to attend training. The women who participated received the voucher or the training opportunity, some both and others neither. We followed up with each of the women who took part in this randomized experiment, regardless of what they received, with detailed phone interviews. The report Soft Skills or Hard Cash? What works for Female Employment in Jordan explains the project in greater depth and provides an analysis of its impact on employment. Please take a look; I won’t spoil the results here!

As a graduate of the class of 2010 myself, I came into this project with a unique perspective: I had recently started my first job while many of my friends were still searching for employment. Through conversations with many of the women participating in the Jordan NOW pilot, two things really struck me. First, the women who had participated in the training course absolutely raved about it; they rated it extremely high in our midline survey and more than a few mentioned to me that the material they learned helped them “better understand how to interact with others” and “approach life with a stronger sense of optimism” (their words not mine). So, the training did have an impact; just not one that economists usually think of or measure. What struck me even more was Jordan’s strong “culture of shame” – women simply refused to work in any sales job even if offered an above-market wage because they were not considered prestigious enough for community college or university graduates. In the United States, many of my friends and former classmates took temporary jobs as waiters or administrative assistants while simultaneously working in unpaid internships and searching for more ideal, paid jobs.  In Jordan, the vast majority of young female graduates (and male graduates too) refuse to work in any field outside their own field of study. Like interns in the US, young community college graduates value job experience over salary. But internships in Jordan are few and far between, so the norm for female graduates is that they  either find a job in their field or they give up as opposed to accumulating experience in less prestigious jobs.

The wage subsidy voucher component of Jordan NOW helped to fill the internship void: many of the young graduates with vouchers arranged with firms to create jobs that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Like an internship, the job isn’t necessarily meant to last forever but at least it helped many to get their foot in the door. Were we successful in our objective? Part of the answer lies in understanding how young Jordanians think and approach the labor market. Rather than a reservation wage, the Jordanian youth live by reservation job prestige. Opportunity cost isn’t measured in dollars or dinars, it’s measured in honor  – for many, it’s more honorable to stay at home than deign to work in a non-prestigious job outside one’s field. These beliefs, this way of thinking, is hard to change and can lead to significant obstacles for youth employment in Jordan, especially among young women.

For more information, please have a look  here and read our publication here.

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