The Middle East’s Gender Gap: How Childcare Barriers Hinder Women’s Employment Opportunities.
Yana Spencer is a journalist, women's rights activist and the founder of Tamu Bakery - a non-profit empowering survivors of gender-based violence.
On a recent 16-hour flight, I managed to secure a seat with extra leg room. The flight attendant sat opposite me during take-off and when it got turbulent. Smiling at each other, chit chatting about the weather and travel at first, our conversation then shifted to the subject of work. “Today is my last shift before the summer vacation. I can’t wait to spend time with my kids. While I am working, my mum looks after them. It’s gotten tiring after a few years, you know, no longer am I romanticising about my job, but I have to earn money for my family”.
An average conversation, but the difference here is that the flight attendant was the only female crew member from the MENA region, working for one of the biggest airlines in the Middle East. Surely enough, a lot more women dream of filling this lady’s high heeled career shoes, but not many actually ever manage it. What is stopping them is not a lack of confidence or pilot schools, but artificially created barriers.
After spending 6 years in the region working with women, one of the biggest hoops they have to jump through on their way to fulfilling employment is childcare. Not everyone has mother who can provide daycare like the flight attendant I met, despite the perception that families in the Middle East are close-knit and it is a given that women can rely on their relatives. Societies evolve, and nowadays young families often live separately, having moved away in search of work. And what does the future hold? What will happen when today’s crop of working mums are still working, and yet their grown-up children will come knocking for help with their own kids?
“Working mums need help with daycare” is repeated like a mantra at every meeting I have with women. Lack of nursery places in many areas, limited free public service provision, lack of financial support for households with children, the unaffordability of quality childcare service, plus the short working hours of nurseries which do not coincide with the 8am to 6pm office grind – these are the main reasons why women with children have limited access to work opportunities. Part time or remote work is often not an option.
Women’s labour force participation rates (LFPR) in the Middle East are the lowest in the world at 24.6%—half the global average. “As a woman, you have to mention your marital status and number of children in your application for jobs in many sectors in MENA” one Omani accountant mentioned to me. “Employers blatantly tell you to your face that they are worried about how much time you will take off when your kid gets sick. More children equals more time off work. Often, I am being asked at the job interviews if I am planning to have any more children” she further explained.
The Middle East has a thriving tradition of learning and academic progress, especially for girls, so what is holding women back? Many are still dealing with ‘mother’s guilt’ which is strongly embedded into the traditional gender norms. Domestic help, widely present in the region, is much cheaper than a nursery, but using staff unqualified in childcare sits difficultly with modern Arab women who are increasingly prioritising socialisation and educational aspects in the upbringing of their children.
The shortfall in childcare affects every family, and has a major knock-on effect on every country’s economy. However, in the MENA region it is made worse by stigma, conservative gender norms, and changing social demographics. Urgent action is needed, and the best solutions would seem to lie in the hands of women – once they are allowed to become executive decision makers. When we finally see policies for women being created by women, who have themselves faced professional hurdles, maybe then we shall finally see more female pilots and flights attendants from the Middle East on our next flight (and likewise in every walk of life – boardrooms, science labs and sports fields). Creating flying schools for women is simply not enough.