Jordan ranks among the world’s worst countries for women’s economic participation. A former cabinet minister speaks out on what must change.

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Jordanian plumber Maryam Mutlaq at a school in Zarqa, northeast of Amman, 21 March 2016 (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)
This is the third of five articles on women’s rights in the Middle East. It is based on the author’s interview with Reem Abu Hassan, a lawyer and former minister of Social Development in Jordan. Today’s article explores women in the Jordanian economy. To read the first two articles, click here and here.

By Raghda Obeidat

The main problem that Jordanian women experience today is exclusion from the workplace. Currently, Jordan ranks as one of the worst countries in the world for female economic participation.

In its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum ranked Jordan 144 out of 149 countries — surpassing only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — for women’s economic participation and opportunity.

The finding is particularly bleak given the progress Jordan has made in closing the gender gap in educational attainment and health and survival, where it scored relatively high.

We spoke with Reem Abu Hassan, Jordan’s former minister of Social Development, about the challenge.

“I am a firm believer that what (Jordan) has to focus on now, as a country, is economic participation,” she said. “When a woman is independent economically, she is able to sit on the negotiation table, and she is able to say, ‘This is what should happen.’”

Women are needed in non-traditional roles.

There are a number of ways government, civil society and businesses can promote gender equity in the marketplace.

Women can be encouraged to pursue positions in government, Hassan said, where currently there is a very clear gender gap in the country’s decision-making bodies. She advocates the use of affirmative action, noting that without a quota system, Jordan would have very few female parliamentarians.

“We must have female ministers because it sends a positive image, especially in non-traditional roles,” Hassan said. “I mean, the Ministry of Social Development is always considered a portfolio fit for women. But a women for the Ministry of Transportation is not considered a traditional portfolio.”

But while increasing the number of women at the highest levels is important, it cannot be the sole focus, she said.

“Yes, women ministers are important,” Hassan said. “But what is more important is having women in middle management. They are who the citizen interacts with…. You have to have society get used to women making decisions.”

Civil society and businesses have a role to play. Hassan is involved with the Jordanian chapter of the International Women’s Forum, which runs a local leadership training program for women in middle management. Its aim is to help women advance to more senior decision-making positions.

Change needs to start in schools.

Companies could introduce quotas for women to serve on their boards. That could be good for both women and business.

The consultancies McKinsey & Company and EY have published studies, including McKinsey’s Women Matter report, which show that increased participation of women on corporate boards results in improved corporate governance and overall better corporate performance.

It is important to change social attitudes about women, starting in schools.

Today, many books in public schools contain images of women performing stereotypically feminine acts — women serving fathers or brothers food, or cooking in the kitchen. There are few portrayals of women as professionals or as important decision-makers.

Children internalize such subliminal messages as they grow older.

While Jordan has been working on reforming its curricula for a long time, it needs to do more to ensure girls and boys are taught about women’s rights and shown that women can occupy many different positions in society.

“Have her in the kitchen, but also have her in the kitchen of politics where she is in a board or she is in a cabinet or in the municipal councils,” remarked Hassan. “These are all kitchens. They are where decisions are cooked and made.”

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the full recorded interview with Hassan, click here.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. According to the World Economic Forum’s report, in which countries is female economic participation highest? In which countries is it lowest?
  2. What is affirmative action? Why is it controversial?
  3. What steps have been taken in your country to ensure women participate in the job market and society?

Raghda Obeidat

Raghda Obeidat is in her third year of high school at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan. She loves reading English and Arabic literature and staying well-informed on Arab and global politics. Raghda volunteers with organizations that provide social aid and educational assistance to refugees. She also contributes to her school’s literary magazine.

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