When Dina Saad attended a job fair in Jordan’s busy capital of Amman, she was surprised to find that the vast majority of job seekers were young women like herself. Saad, who finished her master’s degree in international relations with honours a year ago, did not expect the fair to be attended by around 80 per cent women.
In Jordan, women outnumber and outperform men in universities. But despite their educational achievements, they are much more likely to be unemployed or to drop out of the labour force than men. Around 77 per cent of unemployed women in Jordan have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The unemployment rate for men who attended higher education is four times lower, at around 26 per cent.
Saad spent months sending resumes and applying for jobs. “I was interested in the foreign ministry, but most people working there are men.” She felt discriminated in job interviews, and was even asked by an embassy employee why a “pretty girl” like her would be concerned with politics and foreign affairs.
“Some men would come to me to ask me for advice, but then they would be the ones getting the jobs,” says 25-year-old Saad with indignation. “The most difficult part was seeing men who didn’t have the education or knowledge getting appointed to positions because they were men and so were seen as more reliable and capable,” she adds.
With a 95 per cent literacy rate, Jordanian women are amongst the most highly educated in the region. Jordan, however, has one of the world’s lowest rates of female participation in the labour force. Last year, only 14 per cent of Jordanian women were part of the formal labour market according to the World Bank. The rate is only lower in war-torn Syria (10 per cent) and Yemen (6 per cent).
Throughout the Middle East most girls attend school and more women than men are going to university. In Jordan, girls have been consistently outperforming boys academically in almost every subject and age level. And yet, most women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use. So why is women’s economic participation so low in Jordan, especially when educational levels are so high?
Childcare as a prerequisite for increasing the economic participation of women
“The main structural barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce is the lack of childcare, low or unequal pay, and the lack of public transportation,” explains Randa Naffa, the co-founder of Sadaqa (which means ‘friendship’ in English), a non-profit organisation trying to create a supportive environment for working women in Jordan.
In 2011, after giving birth to her son, Naffa struggled to reconcile her family life with her work because of the lack of access to childcare facilities. Forced to quit her full-time job, she grouped with other women suffering with the same problem and they started campaigning for women’s labour rights. The idea to establish Sadaqa stemmed from the founders’ experience as working mothers. Their goal was to encourage women to stay in the labour market.
Sadaqa’s founders discovered there was a provision in Jordanian law, Article 72, which requires employers to provide for childcare if they have more than 20 female employees. But this law is never enforced.
“We found out that women weren’t aware that the law existed and that employers avoided compliance,” Naffa tells Equal Times. She started campaigning for the enforcement of Article 72 and the recognition of childcare as a public good.
Sadaqa held workshops on the importance of childcare and its economic benefits. “Daycare attracts more women to the workforce but also contributes to economic growth,” says Naffa. Astudy published by Sadaqa in 2016 showed that companies could save up to US$1 million a year by providing working women with childcare. After approaching hundreds of companies, the organisation managed to convince 90 of them to set up childcare facilities for their workers.
Sadaqa is now focusing on the need to amend Article 72 to affirm that childcare is agender-neutral responsibility. Naffa argues that the law should be enforced according to the number of children instead of number of women in the workplace. The main goal is to make sure that childcares is seen as a right – one that is affordable and accessible to all working parents.
Public transportation and equal pay
Since 2014, Naffa and her colleagues have been focusing on the impact the lack of transportation plays in the economic lives of women. A study recently conducted by Sadaqa found that 47 per cent of young Jordanian women have had to turn down a job offer because of the lack of access to transportation. As a result, Sadaqa joined forces withMa’an Nasel a coalition of different organisations campaigning for better public transportation in Jordan.
In a city where buses are scarce and complaints of harassment are abundant, the lack of affordable and safe public transport keeps many women away from the world of work. “With low pay, no public transportation and no daycare, there are no incentives for women to remain in the workforce. Sometimes it is cheaper for them to just stay at home,” explains Naffa.
For Reem Aslan, a consultant at the International Labour Organization (ILO), the main reason why women don’t join the workforce in Jordan is because of low and unequal salaries for women. Since 2011, Aslan has been a leading member of the National Committee for Pay Equity in Jordan (NCPE) promoting the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.
According to the ILO, women working in Jordan’s private sector earn on average 40 per cent less than their male counterparts. In the public sector the pay gap is around 28 per cent, and in both sectors there is a higher concentration of women in lower paid jobs. Jordanian labour law has no provision guaranteeing the right to equal remuneration for work of equal value.
Aslan also adds that in Jordan, a family allowance is almost always granted to married male employees. Women are only entitled to a family allowance if they prove they are the sole breadwinners, which reinforces gender stereotypes and “male breadwinner” models. “The roles of women at home are still the same. They are expected to do all the household chores,” says Aslan. “We need to change the rules and address the cultural aspects.”
Naffa, on the other hand, argues that women’s low participation in the workforce cannot be fully explained with cultural arguments. “I think the barriers we are facing are mostly structural,” she says. “Decision-makers like to blame culture, but this is their way of not taking responsibility for the law and structural barriers.” If there are traditional gender roles that discourage women from entering the workforce, “what is the government doing to help women enter the workforce?” asks Naffa. “Is it making sure that public transportation is available? Is it providing enough incentives for women?”
Traditional mindsets that women shouldn’t be hired because they will eventually leave the workforce to become housewives and mothers are still common according to Aslan, who adds that there are very few women in senior positions.
“A lot of women work in the informal sector,” says Naffa, but their work is not accounted for and often not socially valued.
Fighting against harassment and discrimination
There are no laws in Jordan prohibiting gender discrimination in the workplace. Legal provisions like paid maternity leave and childcare are often circumvented by employers, and sometimes used as reasons not to hire more women. Similarly, there are no laws addressing harassment in the workplace.
“When harassment happens, families ask women to leave their jobs and stay at home,” says Aslan. “Nothing happens to the employer who harasses his employees.”
In this year’s ILO conference talks focused on a new international convention and recommendation to protect workers from violence and harassment in the world of work, which could be adopted as soon as 2019. “As activists, we will lobby for the government of Jordan to ratify the convention,” says Aslan.
Boushra al-Salman, a member of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Union Women’s Committee, has received many complaints of verbal and sexual harassment. Al-Salman, who is the chairperson of the food industry union, says many female workers are afraid to talk about harassment. “Some women leave their jobs because nothing happens after they make a complaint. Harassment continues and nothing changes,” she says.
When al-Salman announced she would be running for presidency of the Jordanian Food Industry Union in 2020 she heard voices of discouragement.
“Sometimes men tell me I can’t be president because I am a woman. But why not? I can do anything,” says al-Salman with a smile.
She has been a member of the union for 15 years, and has been campaigning for women’s rights for almost as long. Al-Salman gives workshops on labour rights and has negotiated several deals with major companies in Jordan.
“I’m training other women to become leaders and to speak out about their problems and concerns. If its only men talking they won’t represent the problems that women face,” she tells Equal Times. “There has never been a female president in any of the unions,” she says. “But hopefully in the next few years there will be more women in leading positions.”