Jordanian women raise academic bar

Women in Jordan have raised the academic bar against their male counterparts, despite entrenched cultural and social barriers that contribute to high unemployment rates among female university graduates, according to a World Bank study on gender assessment.

The study, Economic Participation, Agency and Access to Justice in Jordan, states that Jordan is one of the many countries in the Arab world – including Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Oman, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – where more women than men are attending university.

“Tertiary education completion rates are also higher in those countries,” noted the study that was conducted last year and released on 17 April by the World Bank’s poverty reduction and economic management department for Middle East and North Africa.

According to UNESCO, overall enrolment of women in Jordanian universities stands at 52% compared to 48% for their male counterparts.

The gross enrolment ratio – total enrolment in a specific level of education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the eligible official school-age group for the level or cycle concerned in a given school year – is currently at 41% for women against the men’s 35%.

While girls in Jordan are also more highly represented in secondary education than boys, going to school is only half the battle as most women are ‘invisible’ in the job market.

The World Bank report says that about 50% of young women with university education are unemployed compared to 25% of their male counterparts.

The crux of the matter is that women in Jordan are perceived to be less productive than men and subsequently face restrictions to the labour market.

“Most of those barriers are deeply embedded in cultural preferences and social norms that also hinder women from becoming potential entrepreneurs,” said Paul Prettitore, a senior public sector specialist at the World Bank who was also the team leader of the study.

Gender paradox

However, Jordan’s gender paradox is worrying in that last year it was ranked 119th among 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in terms of women’s economic progress, further down than many other middle income countries.

According to the World Bank study that was specifically conducted to assess the extent of gender economic and labour opportunity imbalances, researchers noted unemployment levels were particularly high among university educated women.

“Vulnerability to unemployment in Jordan rises with the level of education for women, while men with higher education are less likely to be unemployed,” said Daniela Marotta, a senior economist at the World Bank and a member of the study team.

Indeed, while 6.5% of Jordan’s population aged over 25 years has tertiary education, the resources used have not resulted in maximum economic or social benefits as a result of poor utilization of women university graduates.

Educated women are inactive

According to UNESCO, many educated women in Jordan have been classified as inactive, although their inactivity is ostensibly reflected in the unfriendly labour market, rather than lack of motivation.

“In Jordan, 37% of university educated females are classified as inactive, compared with 10% of males,” says the UNESCO-backed International Institute for Educational Planning in a position briefing paper on the status of education in Jordan.

Subsequently, gender equality is still held back by discrimination in most workplaces, forcing women to increasingly seek employment in the education and health sectors. Those two sectors are responsible for 38% and 12% respectively of all female employment.

Unfortunately, according to the World Bank study, the growth rate of job creation in education and health has been almost stagnant in the last few years.

“Consequently, employment trends in Jordan indicate that female workers are not only locked into low growth sectors but also in sectors with limited labour productivity, such as education, health and public administration,” said Prettitore.

Gender parity in literacy

But although women in Jordan face obstacles in accessing jobs, they have made remarkable progress in life expectancy and literacy levels. According to Dr Amneh Khasawneh, the director of women’s studies at Yarmouk University, maternal mortality is low and in the last three decades, female life expectancy rose from 66 to about 74 years, compared to a rise from 63 to 70 years for men.

“Besides, from a large imbalance in the beginning of the 1980s, Jordan has closed gender gaps in school enrolment at the primary level, while females now constitute the majority of enrolments at the secondary and tertiary levels,” says Khasawneh. Currently,
Jordan’s 90% gender parity in literacy is among the top in the Arab world.

Taking into account that barriers to economic participation seem to start with women’s education, gender activists in Jordan have embarked on a campaign of reforming the education system in order to better respond to market signals and equip young women with skills demanded by the high productivity sectors of the economy.

Having sustained a gender reverse gap for several years, where more females than males are accessing university education, it seems women in Jordan are slowly dismantling traditional cultural norms and social preferences that encourage and distort women’s economic participation in the country’s labour force.