Female participation in the Middle East

Religion and society will continue to influence the nature of employer-employee relationships in the Middle East to a greater degree than in the West.

by International Journal of Human Resource Management
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Relationships in work and elsewhere are based on consensus and unity (itihad), balance or equilibrium (adl) and high trust exchanges facilitated through family networks (naseeb). Women have been slow to participate in the economy in the same way as outside the Middle East, in part because the oil industry historically has been patriarchal.

Nonetheless, declining fertility rates and better education for women have increased the numbers of females in work. The overall regional increase in the number of women in the workforce is not high, with a 47% increase between 1960 and 2000 across the Middle East and North Africa.

But the increase is much more striking in some states. For instance, in Bahrain women's labour participation has increased by 668% since 1960. This pattern is repeated in Kuwait and the UAE. Total female participation in Bahrain in 2002 was 25.8%.

The role of women in work in the Middle East is influenced by a set of customs and behaviours known as diwan and wasta. The former is a style of decision-making rooted in Islamic tradition and describes a process of achieving balance and justice (adalah); the latter relates to the recognition that power in society is related to tribal and familial structures.

The national business system is largely characterised by an interlocking structure that stretches across, and between, networks (usually male-dominated) in families, organisations and political life. Through the concept of qiwama (protection), men are also expected to protect the honour, dignity and humility of women.

The research is based on discussions with 102 Bahraini women who attended workshops over a six-day period. Seventy per cent of the respondents reported that their organisation had no formal equal opportunity policy, including family-oriented and sexual harassment policies.

It was expected that women would look after their children and leave work when they became pregnant. Working hours are more conducive to childcare than elsewhere and Bahraini women are entitled to eight weeks' unpaid maternity leave. Most women said they expected to stop working when they married and would return only if their husbands encouraged them to do so. Many women regarded their status as equal to men within Islamic tradition, although their roles are different.

Many firms in Bahrain take the view that men and women are 'equal but different' by having unofficial sex segregation policies, such as separate work spaces. The study confirmed that women believed they were not offered the same training opportunities as men and it is in this area that they wanted to see change. They also said they would benefit from women mentors, and felt their position in the economy would be secured by new policies on maternity pay, extended maternity leave and flexible work schemes.

Gender and human resource management in the Middle East
Beverly Dawn Metcalfe
International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol 18 No 1, January

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