Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Getting more women into employment in Egypt

Despite significant increases in women’s education and health indicators in Egypt, their rate of labour force participation remains one of the lowest in the world. This column explains how marriage acts as an obstacle for women taking jobs in the private sector, and outlines potential remedies to the ‘marriage mismatch’.

In a nutshell

Policies that encourage a better fit between private sector jobs and family responsibilities of married women would go a long way towards improving Egypt’s low rate of female labour force participation.

Policy-makers need to provide more affordable childcare services of an acceptable quality, create more family-friendly jobs and encourage entrepreneurial opportunities for women.

Parental leave policies, equal pay policies and policies that do not impede the growth of the services sector are additional solutions.

Greater participation of women in Egypt’s labour market would enable the economy to grow at a much faster rate. But government jobs have set the bar high for what is acceptable in terms of job conditions for women. With the declining role of the government as an employer, a high share of inactive women are now discouraged from finding employment and believe that there are few jobs that match their needs after marriage.

A ‘marriage mismatch’ of this kind exists when the responsibilities that come with marriage are not compatible with the needs of the labour market, and vice versa. Identifying policies that help to overcome this mismatch from both the employer and the married woman’s side are necessary. In the end, policy-makers need to provide more affordable childcare services of an acceptable quality, create more family-friendly jobs and encourage entrepreneurial opportunities for women.

Looking at the demand side, employers in the formal private sector often do not wish to hire married women because they cannot afford to deal with the costs of hiring them. On the other hand, since the private sector usually involves long working hours and is largely male-dominated, married women tend to find such work unsuitable since it limits the time they have to spend on domestic activities. These high barriers to entry for women in the private sector end up pushing them out.

Moreover, active labour market policies that support women are so limited as to be practically non-existent. There has recently been an update to the maternity leave policy such that an extra month of paid leave is accorded to married women. This gives women four months of maternity leave instead of three.

Nevertheless, this is not enough as there continue to be many barriers facing married women’s employment, such as unsuitable working conditions, outdated cultural norms and discriminatory working environments that place women at an unfair disadvantage compared with male employees. In view of this, policies to support women’s employment in the formal private sector are necessary as currently the market is not matching the needs of women, especially married women, at all.

In addition, since sexual harassment can often be an issue for women in the private sector, policies that protect women from this phenomenon and punish perpetrators could go a long way towards making women feel more welcome and safe in this sector.

Another issue that married women face is how to balance their time between domestic and market work. The domestic work burdens of married Egyptian women are substantial and do not decrease if they are engaged in market work. Women are burdened with time-consuming domestic chores, such as agricultural activities for household consumption, shopping, maintenance, cooking, laundry, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, caring for the sick or elderly, and caring for children.

In 2012, ‘ever-married’ women who were employed had 29.3 hours of domestic work, practically the same quantity of domestic work as ever-married and not employed women (29.6 hours). Moreover, ever-married women who were employed worked 36.9 hours in the market for an aggregate of 65.9 hours of work in 2012. Hours of market work for both ever-married and never-married women have only decreased slightly.

For never-married women, both the least and most educated women tend to spend longer hours on domestic activities. In contrast, a higher level of education for ever-married women means longer hours spent on domestic activities. Employed women who are illiterate or with an intermediate education devote the longest amount of hours to market work among all never-married women who are employed.

For the ever-married group, the number of hours spent in the labour market is lowest for employed illiterate women, highest for women with less than intermediate education, and falls more in the middle for those with intermediate or higher education.

As a result, participating in the labour force incurs a high opportunity cost for married women. Without childcare services, it becomes a burden for them to seek out jobs, as there is no one to care for their children while they are at work. To stimulate women’s labour force participation, subsidies to daycare that are conditional on a woman’s employment are preferable to child benefits.

Improving access to childcare will also reduce the key barriers to employment and lead to spillover benefits in skills, employability, educational attainment and productivity. Policies that subsidise childcare services in the workplace, especially in formal private sector workplaces, make such jobs more family-friendly.

Other solutions could come in the form of providing women with more flexible working hours, either in the form of part-time jobs or work from home jobs. Providing quality part-time work lowers the risk of these types of jobs marginalising women.

But since this is still a possibility, policies should aim at fostering access to full-time jobs and reducing the negative future career consequences that time spent in part-time work may yield. Policies to subsidise women’s employment could help in correcting stereotypes and prejudices that employers have towards women, and vice versa.

Moreover, parental leave policies put in place in many countries tend to help. It is important that the leave ranges from several months to around ten months; longer leave tends to discourage the return to work. Iceland, the country with the highest levels of women’s labour force participation, has also implemented policies that involve wage equality among men and women.

Policies that encourage women’s entrepreneurship can also help to give them more options for work in the market. In this sense, ‘entrepreneurship can provide outlets for women, including working from home, and may therefore be more compatible with prevailing conservative norms’ (Krishnan, 2014). Policies that encourage this and make it easier for women to meet such an end could possibly work best with the domestic needs of women and with the outdated cultural norms that are more difficult to change.

Finally, other policies that have yielded positive results are those to reduce regulations that will obstruct service sector growth, immigration policies and welfare distributed through ‘make work pay’ schemes (OECD, 2004). Implementing policies that allow for flexible working hours, quality childcare and parental leave have led to a 10% increase in women’s labour force participation in OECD countries.

Further reading

Hendy, Rana (2015) ‘Untapping Low Female Labor Force Participation in Egypt: Ending the Marriage Mismatch’, ERF Policy Brief No. 5.

Hendy, Rana (2015) ‘Women’s Participation in the Egyptian Labor Market: 1998-2012’, in The Egyptian Labor Market in an Era of Revolution edited by Ragui Assaad and Caroline Krafft, Oxford University Press.

Krishnan, Nandini (2014) ‘The Status of Yemeni Women: From Aspiration to Opportunity’, World Bank.

OECD (2004) ‘Policies to Increase Labour-Force Participation of Women and Older Workers’.

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