Published on Arab Voices

What gets in their way? A closer look into why so few women work in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon

Architect working in Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Claudia Wiens/GIZ Architect working in Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Claudia Wiens/GIZ

Less than 15% of women participate in the labor market in Iraq and Jordan, and only 26% do in Lebanon.  These are among the lowest women labor participation rates worldwide. In a context of instability, crises, fiscal constraints and conflict which has led to few new jobs being created, the World Bank has been supporting women’s equal access to the labor market.  

“We need to focus on making sure women have the same opportunities to work as men, should they want to,” says Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Regional Director for the Mashreq Region. He continues: “As part of our contribution to a more enabling environment, research such as the State of the Mashreq Women report provides us with important data and evidence to inform the policy dialogue and the programmatic response in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. 

Higher-educated, younger, and unmarried women are more likely to work.  When examining labor force participation patterns for women across the three countries, a few issues stand out: Education matters, and so does family status and age. In all three countries, two-thirds of women with tertiary education are either employed or seeking a job.  There is a generational shift in Jordan and Lebanon with participation rates significantly higher among younger women.  Family status is also important: for example, Lebanon shows declines in participation after marriage and further declines after having a child. In Jordan, married women with no children have a 20-percentage point lower probability to participate in the labor market than unmarried women. 

Figure 1: Female labor force participation rate, by age of youngest child and education level, Lebanon


Women face additional and specific constraints at critical turning-points in life. Women’s labor market participation is based on their role in society and in their families in relation to social norms, legal constraints, and market failures. Women encounter barriers at four critical turning-points: 

  1. “Getting ready”
  2. “Entering and remaining”
  3. “Getting married” and
  4. “Having a child.”


During the “Getting ready” stage, women and girls need the right skills to build their agency to get ready for a successful transition from school to work. A significant gender gap in this regard can be observed in Iraq, where only slightly more than one in two girls completes primary schooling— compared to three-quarters of boys. Among 13-year-olds, 80% of boys still attend school, but only 40% of girls do.

During the “Entering and remaining” stage, women encounter barriers that may prevent them from entering the labor market altogether or may lead them to withdraw. Constraints include legal restrictions, limiting social expectations, employer discrimination, harassment in the workplace, and mobility constraints. For instance, 1 in 3 women in the three countries has been verbally harassed in public and 1 in 5 women in Iraq and Lebanon and 1 in 10 women in Jordan has been physically harassed.  

The “Getting married” stage comes with another set of constraints to women’s formal work given social and legal constraints related to their role as wives. For instance, data for Jordan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq show that the acceptance to women’s work outside the home decreases considerably once a woman is married.

Finally, “Having a child” implies additional barriers related to access and availability of quality childcare services which may lead women to withdraw from the labor market. The report shows a clear association between time spent on housework and the probability to be in the labor force.

A series of policy interventions can lift barriers and promote women’s work. Salma Nims, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, says: “What’s needed is not only more jobs. We also have to recognize the complexities and many challenges women face in the labor market. As highlighted in the report, we need to facilitate women’s labor force participation through sound policies and real commitment to the implementation frameworks across sectors.”

Policy makers and relevant stakeholders should focus on making public transportation safer; revising discriminatory laws and regulations and ensuring the closing of the gap between the law on paper and the law in practice; increasing the supply of childcare services (of good quality); and, addressing social norms that prevent women from earning an income of her own. The digital economy can be an opportunity for women’s labor force participation - at the same time, action to close the digital gender divide in the Mashreq countries, one of the widest in the world, will be necessary  or else the digital transformation threatens to become less of an opportunity and more of a barrier.

Subsequent reports will dive deeper into the policy recommendations from the first report. Concretely, the second State of the Mashreq Women report will explore the care economy and its role in promoting women’s labor force participation.

This first State of the Mashreq Women report was produced as part of the Mashreq Gender Facility (MGF). Subsequent reports under the MGF will examine more closely the constraints to women’s labor force participation emerging in this first analysis. The MGF provides technical assistance to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to strengthen the enabling environment for women’s economic participation and improve women’s access to economic opportunities. The Facility is a World Bank - IFC initiative in collaboration with the governments of Canada and Norway. It is mainly supported by the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE) with contributions from the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Miriam Muller

Senior Social Scientist with the Poverty Global Practice at the World Bank

Matthew Wai-Poi

Lead Economist, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000