Creating economic opportunities for women

Isobel Coleman

Kai Ryssdal: The president mentioned a couple of times today that the Middle East is, in essence, ignoring one of its most important economic assets.

Commentator Isobel Coleman says nothing will change in the region until that changes.


Isobel Coleman: Millions of unemployed youth facing grim economic prospects have fueled the revolutions. Not surprisingly, women have played a prominent role too; across the region, they experience higher levels of unemployment than men, yet have rising economic expectations.

Just as in the West, women in the Middle East are overtaking men in college graduation rates. They are 65 percent of college graduates in the UAE and Iran. Even in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, women make up more than half of college graduates. They are not only increasingly educated, but ambitious too. The problem is that women in the Middle East still face considerable social and legal obstacles to working.

That's a fact reflected in their low workforce participation rates. Just listen to these numbers.

Tunisia has one of the highest rates in the Middle East, with less than a third of women working; in Saudi Arabia, where gender segregation is imposed and women cannot drive, it's only 5 percent.

The region faces a double economic whammy now of wasting the productive capacity of women. The private sector has been unwelcoming, because there also entrenched conservative values and religious biases persist. So, female talent in the Middle East tends to gravitate to the public sector, finding employment as teachers, bureaucrats, and health care workers. Women are also starting their own businesses and that's helping to drive entrepreneurship across the region. I attended the Fourth Annual Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh last year and about a quarter of the twenty or so entrepreneurs who won prizes-in categories from "fast growth" to "responsible competitiveness" were women. This is good news for the Middle East.

The countries of the Middle East need to figure out how to open the private sector to women. Economic aid flowing into the region should also have investments supporting education and opportunities for women. Making full use of female talent will be the only way to achieve growth and stability in the years ahead.


Ryssdal: Isobel Coleman is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. Write to us -- click on this contact link.

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