Egyptian female youth and their labour market

Iris Boutros
9 Min Read
Iris Boutros
Iris Boutros
Iris Boutros

Recently, I was stunned. I had quite a surprising experience while interviewing a young, Egyptian woman for a basic entry-level analyst-type position. From my perspective, the interview was going well. The young woman was bright and seemed to have many of the qualities I was looking for in a candidate. As we were wrapping up, however, she mentioned to me that she knew a better candidate for the position, better than herself.

What at the surface might seem as an unconfident or uncompetitive spirit was not so at all, that I am certain of. The experience left an impression. And after some research, I am left wondering whether this behaviour might perhaps be an indication of a real difference between female and male youth in the labour market, one that should be kept in mind when designing youth employment policies and programmes.

The job interview

While interviewing candidates, I had given an exercise to test whether or not they had the research and analytical skills I needed in an analyst. The young woman I was meeting with had done well on the exercise, on pure objective measures. She answered the questions correctly and drew appropriate conclusions from the data. I was definitely satisfied with the level of her skills.

But as we finished the exercise, she told me that she now better understood the skill set that would best match the job and she recommended her friend. She felt her former classmate, who she studied economics with in university, would be a better candidate with better skills.

Her inviting more competition for the position stunned me. She was a confident young woman. And her confidence is reasonable. She is bright. Nonetheless, she felt her friend had skills that could be a better match, which she explained to me would ultimately create more value. She also expressed interest in the job, and asked me to certainly consider her. But she felt that I should at least interview her friend as well.

An obvious explanation to this behaviour could be the often-heard argument that Egyptian women do not want to work, an argument that is certainly supported by data. Female labour participation in Egypt is exceptionally low. Women only account for about one-fifth of the Egyptian labour force. When facing the youth labour market, however, it is often a good indication of women’s decisions about working.

The youth labour market

The youth market reveals much about the dynamics of labour market entry for a population. It is a critical transitional time when youth are making lifelong investment decisions about education that will pay off over a lifetime. The school-to-work transition can have a lasting impact on career trajectories.

More practically speaking, youth labour participation is very important for an economy because often, it is the unemployment problem. In the world these days, youth are the unemployed. In Egypt, at least 90% of the unemployed are youth. This is consistent with global trends.

What is different in Egypt is the sizeable gap between female and male youth employment. Youth labour force participation (engaged in economic activity for the purpose of market exchange or seeking such work) among youth aged 15-29 is 37.9%, according to the Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE), published in December of 2010. Male labour force participation is 61.4%, whereas only 13.4% of female youth are working or looking for work.

Male youth labour participation rises with age, increasing dramatically as they get older and pass school age. Females, on the other hand, do not join the labour force, even after they finish school. Even among youth not in school, only 17.6% of females are economically active, compared to 86.3% of males. That is a five-fold difference. And these large differences remain when comparing male and female youth in a variety of ways, in urban or rural areas, or in Upper or in Lower Egypt. Looking at the data in different ways, Egyptian male youth join the labour force in large numbers and their female counterparts do not.

But economic activity is higher among females with higher levels of education. Across different educational levels, male youth labour force participation rates are consistently above 80% among non-students, those who have finished their education. The majority of male youth are working or looking for work, no matter their level of education. Among non-student female youth, however, labour force participation is less than 10% among young women having completed general secondary school or less.

But those differences get smaller, among more educated youth. Female economic activity increases to 17.6% among vocational secondary degree holders and to 35.1% among those with a post-secondary vocational education. The gap in labour force participation by gender is smallest among those with highest education levels, university education or higher, where 46.7% women holding at least a university degree are in the labour market.

The same is true of income levels. Again, male participation rates are consistently above 80%, no matter the income level of the household. Among non-students, 80% of males in the lowest income group are working or are looking for work. Only 11.6% of female youth in the poorest households are in the labour force. Female participation rates increase with wealth, with 32.2% of female youth in Egypt’s richest households work or are looking for work.

The unemployed

The difference between male and female youth, however, that might best explain my experience while interviewing this candidate has to do with the reason for being unemployed. The main reason economically active but unemployed youth give for being unemployed is that there is no work available at all (68.4% of males and 72.4% of females).

For males, however, their next biggest complaint was that there was no work with a suitable wage (22.5% of males vs. 8.1% of females). For young women, the next most popular reason for being unemployed was that there was no work suitable given experience and qualifications (12.6% of females vs. 4.0% of males), followed by not finding work in a suitable location (5.4% of females vs. 2.6% of males). For males, there were no other popular reasons of significance beyond availability of work and a suitable compensation.

For me, these are the differences that stand out. Some of the differences in the labour market are in some sense predictable. With so few labour market opportunities, big differences in gender are not surprising in a country like Egypt. Neither are differences in labour participation by level of education or level of income. But like the young candidate that I interviewed, female youth seem to be more focused on the experience they have when they work, at least among those that looking for work. These types of differences should be kept in mind when designing youth employment policies and programmes, particularly those aimed at correcting the gender imbalances in the labour market.

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros