Female workforce participation rates unchanged in Egypt for past 20 years

13 May 2019 Consultancy-me.com 4 min. read

Government initiatives are driving up female workforce participation rates in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, finds a new PwC study, but engagement in Egypt remains flat.

The verdict is well and truly in; improving female workforce access, participation and inclusion is not only a moral imperative but a boon for both innovation and the bottom line. Indeed, businesses are clearly beginning to recognise this, with nearly nine in ten of those surveyed in PwC’s latest Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarking survey stating that this was now a priority. Those that haven’t realised this yet are likely to fall be the wayside.

Yet, convincing business is one thing – especially when hungry shareholders can point toward financial performance – but how though do you go about shifting ingrained cultural barriers to greater workforce participation if you’re a society? Especially when the economic benefits are as clear as the business ones – estimated by PwC at a staggering $6 trillion in GDP gains across the OECD should female participation rates and conditions match those of Sweden.

For the Middle East & North Africa, this figure sits at $575 billion lost every year in the region due to the legal and social barriers that exist for women’s access to jobs. According to PwC’s Women in Work Index - Insights from MENA survey, which surveyed 3,000 women and men across the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two thirds believed that governments should intervene in the private sector and set targets for gender diversity.

The governments of these countries have in fact been making a concerted effort in recent times to boost female employment numbers through various policies and actions, perhaps none more so sweeping or garnering as much attention as women in Saudi Arabia last year being granted the right to drive – aimed at pushing local female participation rates toward the targeted 30 percent by 2030. Increasing the talent pool is a must if regional economic diversification agendas are to be fully realised.Female workforce participation in Egypt unchanged for last twenty yearsAccording to World Bank data cited by PwC, female workforce participation rates in the Emirates have jumped dramatically from 29.2 percent in 1990 to 40.6 percent last year, with the flow on to be seen in female leadership rates; 30 percent of women in UAE public sector now hold senior roles (although a BCG study put this figure more widely at around 10 percent on 2015 data), and a pioneering equal pay bill was passed by the cabinet last year.

But while reforms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are having some impact, Egypt – which is said to have had a long history of legislative advances for women’s rights – is a different case, with female participation in the workforce having remained almost entirely static for the two past decades – rising a paltry percentage point to 22.3 percent between 1990 and 2018. Here, PwC says, many men are still resistant to the idea of women working outside the home.

PwC’s local Women in Work survey revealed that just 55 percent of Egyptian (and Saudi) workers agree that women and men are treated equally by their employers compared to 66 percent in the UAE. Also, among those surveyed, 64 percent in the UAE and 60 percent in Saudi Arabia recognised that there were national programmes in place to support women throughout their careers, while just 48 percent in Egypt believed this to be the case.

Yet, in noting that cultural attitudes and gender stereotypes take longer to change than governmental and legal reforms, PwC believe that there is “no one-size-fits-all approach to promoting gender diversity in the Middle East. Any initiatives need to take into account the specific histories, cultures and levels of development in each country.” Here, the firm calls on business leaders to continue to lead from the front.

“While it is encouraging to see governments putting in place initiatives to improve diversity in the workplace, business leaders need to prioritise and take action to close the gender gap to make a real impact,” concludes the report, which suggests raising awareness, flexible working approaches and internal accountability measures among a range of remedial actions. “The reasons to act are overwhelming and go beyond the moral argument for equality.”