Women dominate the face of unemployment in Egypt: researchers

Jihad Abaza
7 Min Read
An Egyptian woman walks past graffiti reading "Revolution" (L) outside the American University, off Tahrir Square in Cairo on December 21, 2011. (AFP FILE PHOTO/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)

Young women with university degrees are five times more likely to be unemployed than young men in Egypt, according to the Population Council’s research on gender disparity in access to higher education.

While there are nine women for every 10 men in university and the gender gap is narrowing, the percentage of unemployment after graduation among women remains much higher than men, professor at the American University in Cairo Ghada Barsoum said in a panel organised by the Population Council on Tuesday.

“The face of unemployment in Egypt is the face of a woman, not of a man,” Barsoum said, adding that the media’s focus on young unemployed men sitting in cafés and hence ignores unemployment among women.

Only approximately 10% of women are employed in the private sector, while the other 90% of private sector employment is that of men.

Most studies of unemployment use the standard definition, which states that the unemployed are those who are not working but actively seeking paid jobs, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics and other organisations.

Educated women from rural areas are at the most disadvantaged as they are 17 times less likely to be employed than men from rural areas. Barsoum pointed out that attributing this to “culture” or “traditional gender norms”, as the World Bank and the human development reports usually do, is to lean back on a lazy answer.

Julia Bunting, president of the Population Council, which conducts research on gender, reproductive health, and access to education among other topics, told Daily News Egypt that they follow operations-based research and implementation science.

The research, she said, focuses on checking the effectiveness of projects, the potential scale of these projects, and with what groups in which places.

The council is a global network with offices in dozens of countries across the world, where the staff members consist of nationals who know the contexts of their countries well.

For example, from previous projects, the council has noticed that women will often spend years learning certain skills that they will later forget because they have no place to use them. This brings forth the question of what skills the projects can teach that will be beneficial to women in the long-term.

The panelists put forth the question of how a university student’s choice of study impacts unemployment rates, especially given that more women enter the humanities field, where chances for employment are already lower than the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Other panelists, such as Khaled Abdel Fattah, a sociology professor at Cairo University, pointed to the importance of looking at how the educational structure works to reproduce class gaps.

“The mechanisms of the system inside the university and in the labour market reproduce class disparity,” Abdel Fattah said, adding that he has to teach up to 5,000 students per semester and that the number of students his colleagues in engineering teach is much less. This is in partly due to the fact that poorer students have less access to the time and equipment required to major in STEM fields.

According to Abdel Fattah, while analysing data on the employment of men in rural areas, one should bear in mind that many university-educated men from these areas end up working low-wage jobs outside their field of study, out of necessity. For example, many work as security guards in urban areas, and hence, their four years of schooling are not utilised in the labour force.

Moushira Elgeziri, programme officer at the Ford Foundation, also stated that from a social justice perspective, there is no equality in higher education given that the rich have a higher chance of admission into universities, and hence, state subsidies for education go to the more privileged classes.

“Research is only relevant if it is used,” Elgeziri said at the start of the panel. Nahla Abdel Tawab, the country director of the Population Council agreed, stating that they “focus on implementation and action-involved research”.

“To my knowledge, we are the only research organisation in Egypt that does this,” Abdel Tawab said. “Policy change is a long process. It takes one study after the other to create change.”

Ola Hosny, a research and development specialist, suggested that Egypt can learn from the practices of Ethiopia and Cameroon. In Ethiopia, officials encouraged women to enter STEM fields by lowering the necessary grade point average, providing women-only tutorials, and making peer academic support readily available for students. In Cameroon, all universities were made to have departments for women and gender studies, all research must incorporate a gender perspective, and nurseries were built on-campus.

Bunting maintains that a lot of what happens during the years of higher education and the years after relates to which “life courses have been set many years before”. She questions whether girls are taught that they can presidents or astronauts, adding that this is a question to be pondered on at a global scale.

“We talk about enabling young women to make a healthy transition to adulthood. When you think about the needs of a 10-year-old girl and what she will need at 16, it’s really about how to give her the capital, the skills, the knowledge, the agency that she needs… to become a productive member of society, in whatever ways she chooses,” Bunting said.


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Jihad Abaza is a journalist and photographer based in Cairo. Personal website: www.abaza.photo
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