Regional economies can bloom with more women in the workforce

09 June 2022 5 min. read

Stimulating more women to (re)enter the workforce could provide a major economic impetus to the Middle East, up to as much as $2 trillion, according to a new study by PwC.

Building on years of research on the economic and labour market participation of women globally, PwC’s latest report by the Middle East team has found that bringing the region’s female employment rate on par with that of males could trigger a massive GDP hike for the region: 57%, or as much as $2 trillion.

Reaching this parity however is not a very likely scenario – at least in the mid-term – for all kinds of reasons, but PwC’s researchers do assert that much can be done to help women with advancing their career ambitions and progressions.

MENA region female labour force participation as a percentage of the female working age population

“Tapping into the potential of the next generation of female workers and leaders can unlock a whole new wave economic opportunities in the region,” explained Norma Taki, Inclusion and diversity Leader at PwC.

As it stands, the female labour force participation as a percentage of the female working age population is between 20% and 40% for most countries in the Middle East, with Qatar ranking at the top of the benchmark, and Egypt and Jordan currently seeing the lowest female labour force participation rate.

Progress over the past two decades has been notable. “A pioneering generation of younger women are more likely than ever to go to work and remain in employment to fulfil their career ambitions. They are highly educated and motivated, and are increasingly visible across the public and private sectors,” said Jing Teow, a Senior Economist at PwC and one of the report’s lead authors.

Global female labour force participation as a percentage of the female working age population

Despite this “momentous progress”, the region still has heaps of untapped potential. As an example, on average, 40% of working-age women in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are in employment, compared with 64% across the OECD. From a global perspective, the Middle East has the lowest female labour force participation – or conversely the largest potential to add economic value – in the world.

The journey by country

The journey to gender parity in labour force participation will have different economic effects by country. Countries with the lowest participation rates and largest labour market (Egypt, followed by Jordan) will percentagewise enjoy the biggest addition to their gross domestic product.

From a volume perspective, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which would see their national economic output grow nearly 40% and 20% respectively, would contribute the most to the full parity $2 trillion milestone.

Projected increase in MENA GDP with equal male and female employment rates

Making the change happen

In the Middle East, the road to parity is notorious for its social, economic, and cultural barriers. Keen to explore these factors among the young generation in more detail, PwC conducted a survey on attitudes to work among 1,500 women aged 18 to 35 across Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

“There is a clear ‘expectations versus reality’ gap that young women face, where they face a disconnect between their expectations and lived experiences of employers,” explained Teow.

Around 94% of the surveyed women favoured “work-life balance” and “training & development opportunities” as their most valued employer characteristic. However, only 62% of women agree that their employer provides a satisfactory “work-life balance” and “training & development” opportunities.

The expectations and reality gap

In addition, too often, women do not feel that they are provided “equal training, development and career opportunities” as their male counterparts.

Of equal concern is the fact that 86% of surveyed women believe that they have the skills and experience to progress to the next level of their career, but of this group, just two thirds think they can rise as far as they want with their current employer. The availability of female role models at senior levels is also a factor that according to women needs improvement.

Meanwhile, a high 80% of women in the region feel it is important to play a leading role in looking after their families, meaning that employers are expected to build women-friendly female career paths including more tailored approaches for performance management, returning to the labour market, and flexible working.

Most valued employer characteristics for young MENA women

For employers, this means that they should put more efforts into “encouraging employers to create a strategy that includes investing in skills, reinforcing supportive workplace cultures, embedding equitable workplace policies, respecting personal time and wellbeing as well as developing metrics to actively track the progress in supporting female employees,” said Hani Ashkar, Senior Partner at PwC in the Middle East.

Teow added: “Advancing women’s careers requires a multi-party approach in order for any progress to be sustainable. Governments should continue to support women on a policy-level, and companies should take a more proactive approach in creating workplace environments conducive to women’s success.”

About the report

PwC’s report was developed in conjunction with the Middle East Action for Diversity Council, a council of CEOs from multinationals in the region with the aim of leading by example as well as rallying like-minded organisations to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace.

More details on PwC’s MENA Women in Work Survey 2022 can be found on the report’s microsite.