FEMISE recently launched its series of interviews called « Med Change Makers ».
« Med Change Makers » are text and video-based interviews that allow dynamic researchers of the FEMISE network to illustrate how their research addresses a policy-relevant question and how it contributes to the policy-making process in the Euro-Mediterranean region.
Going towards Gender Equality and Women Empowerment in the South-Med and MENA region
Interview with Karine Moukaddem, SciencesPo, Institut de la Méditerranée and FEMISE
FEMISE places the issue of Inclusiveness at the heart of its research strategy. The issue of women empowerment in the Mediterranean, and more generally in MENA, is of paramount importance to move towards a model of sustainable and inclusive development.
Author of a forthcoming FEMISE MED BRIEF, Karine Moukaddem provides an assessment of existing policy measures on women empowerment in the southern shore of the Mediterranean. She argues that behind the existence of a “Mediterranean paradox” are structural obstacles that are crucial to overcome. Interview :
1. You talk about the “Mediterranean Paradox” while describing the situation of women in the South-Med. What does it imply and what are its root causes?
The Mediterranean Paradox is easy to explain: On the one hand, educational attainments of women improved drastically in the region and female enrolment in schools and universities increased considerably. But on the other hand, women seem to still be struggling to find a place in the labour market. Female labour force participation rates in the region remain lower than in other developing countries and stagnant. In other words, it seems like women participation to the labour market in the South Med is constrained by other factors than access to education.
Regarding the root causes of the paradox, several obstacles are identified as impeding on women’s economic inclusion.
First, the analysis of the labour market structure in the region shows that while in the public sector employment opportunities contract, opportunities in the formal private sector do not rise. Therefore, the increase in the number of educated women translates in an increased female unemployment or a lower female participation in the formal sectors. Second, women’s overall labour participation levels seem to be affected by economic development and improvements in gender equality legislation (or lack of) as well as by the private foreign ownership of the firm and its exporting activities. Other impediments such as the lack of safe, efficient and cheap public transports hamper commuting to work for women.
However, such economic and practical explanations do not explain the whole Paradox; some key factors are cultural. This argument states that women from conservative societies would tend to participate less in the labour market given the large impact of social norms on their trade-off between working outside and being housewives. The considerable negative effect of traditional social norms would be materialised in several conscious and unconscious biases that dissuade women from choosing a professional carrier.
To understand the full situation of women today, all of these arguments matter. The situation is a complex mix between explicit concrete and implicit psychological obstacles that interact both at the macro and micro levels. Women in the South-Med today face structural multi-layered self-reinforcing inequalities deeply rooted in the system.
2. a) Has the situation of women in the South-Med region been improving in terms of concrete economic empowerment?
Yes, it has been improving in the region through some advancement in education mostly and enhanced legislations. Yet, inequalities are still prevalent in the region and concrete economic empowerment seems to be far from reached. The South-Med region seems to be behind in gender equality matters compared to other regions and the situation is actually improving slower than in other developing regions such as East Asia and Pacific or Latin America and the Caribbean. ILO estimates suggest that female labour force participation reached 59% in East Asia and Pacific in 2017, while in Latin America this rate reached 51.5%. As for the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, the female labour force participation is less than half and close to only 20.6% in 2017. The region also lays behind when it comes to a other indicators of women economic and political participation.
b) You argue that the situation is not improving at the correct pace despite the measures adopted, why?
The answer is simple, when it comes to policy making regarding gender equality issues, two aspects are key to understand the inefficiency of the available measures adopted: On the one hand, there are obstacles that impede on the full implementation of measures. On the other hand, these measures are not comprehensive of the situation of women in the region.
First, measures are often hindered by the lack of social will to change. Due to the unconscious biases and other implicit and explicit channels, top-down initiatives are often misunderstood by locals, not accepted by the whole society and seen as inadequate. Mentalities and social norms remain not open to structural change, therefore despite national and international efforts, locals will find a way to deviate or pretend to change the situation without real consequences on empowerment.
Moreover, the measures adopted are often punctual uncoordinated projects and legal adjustments that do not into account the whole picture. The symptoms of the inequality problem are tackled but not the roots. Measures often lack consistency, sustainability/durability and are not part of a holistic approach to the matter. For instance, it is not enough to implement quotas, the system itself needs to work on reforming the role given to women and deconstructing the stereotypes and structural norms. In addition, there is no one South-Med woman but different profiles with different needs and that face different degrees of discrimination. For example, rural women accumulate inequalities and the answers to empower them are not the same as for women living in the capital.
3. How can the state create the conditions for women to fulfil their untapped potential?
To reach a structural empowerment the state needs to implement comprehensive laws and women empowerment needs to be a priority in National agendas, not only an aspiration. There is a need for national strategies creating the conditions allowing women to fulfil their potentials in all sectors of the economy, society and national politics. Creating a flexible national framework that understands women’s needs in each sector of activity and each context, would allow to institutionalize women empowerment. These principles would lead to a better framework for legislative reforms especially in issues such as family law and a modification of educational curricula to support social change.
However, to ensure a real empowerment of women, the state needs to coordinate its action with the other stakeholders. With a focus on children’s education, coordinated action could help change the perceived role of women in the society especially that biases start to develop at a really young age (around 3-5 years old). To make the message more relatable and legitimate, the State needs to work with local leaders such as religious leaders and other influencers that would help mimic good practices and expand the influence of adopted measures. However, working with the whole ecosystem does not mean working on improving the picture of women at the expense of men. It means to include men in the debate and to make them aware of the benefits of gender equality to the whole society.
4. In which ways can the private sector provide solutions to improve the way we invest in women?
Beyond understanding the positive economic externalities of gender equalities, the private sector could help improve policy making by building public-private partnerships in several fields relevant to women empowerment such as the digital sector by training women in coding, investing in vocational training, data gathering and rural areas.
Moreover, to ensure women’s economic empowerment enterprises could offer alternative and flexible working environments that take into account modern perceptions of responsibility sharing in a household. This could mean offering the possibility of work-from home for men and women for 1 day a week or a payed paternity leave on top of the maternity leave or a possibility of bringing children to the office 2 days a week… In addition to these internal policies, enterprises could also install principles of gender equality in their internal functioning by setting a quota in their management boards.
Additionally, enterprises can have an impact on stereotypes and social norms through marketing strategies and Ads. If the message of ads becomes more reliant on gender equality principles, stigmas could decrease.
5. You talk about role modeling and mentoring. How can it contribute to women empowerment?
This is a truly important point. Role modeling and mentoring are essential in order to instigate social change not only by empowering young women and raising their self-esteem and confidence but also by showing men the potential of women and allowing young men to grow accustomed to equality of chances.
On the smaller scale, mentoring can take the figure of small local initiatives working with women on increasing their self-esteem or exploring all the potential professional options available to them. This is the case of portraitists and mentors intend to help women grow more independent and strong.
On the bigger scale, initiatives such as establishing a TV channel featuring women from the region or the launch of a regional comity for gender equality regrouping influential women from different backgrounds could help increase the visibility of success stories. This would allow young women to identify with successful women and thrive to achieve their untapped potential. This is due to a crucial aspect of role modeling, it helps women not only explore their options in terms of goals but also in terms of ways and paths to achieve them.
Social norms can be changed and creating a virtuous circle for women empowerment from within the ecosystem and based on role-modeling, solidarity and mentoring can be a valuable step to achieve this.
Interview by Constantin Tsakas
This activity received financial support from the European Union through the FEMISE project on “Support to Economic Research, studies and dialogues of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership”. Any views expressed are the sole responsibility of the speakers.