What Women Give



Sat, 05 Aug 2017 - 09:00 GMT


Sat, 05 Aug 2017 - 09:00 GMT



by Mariam Elmenoufi, Nour Ibrahim and Omar Elkashawy

Women are often left with the responsibility of childcare, household chores, running a home and caring for family members, but all too often they are also responsible for putting bread on the table; in fact, the Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) estimates that women are the heads of 18.1% of households in Egypt, and although women constitute only 25% of the employed labor force of people aged between 15 to 64, when accounting for their contribution to the informal sector as well as their unpaid household work, the percentage becomes far greater.

That means women are often overburdened inside and outside their homes, and are left undercompensated due to discrimination and working in environments unfavorable to women in general, and especially childbearing women.


Hidden contribution to the economy

Egyptian females do unpaid household work that is worth 30% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), but the work remains largely unstudied and uncompensated or accounted for in economic studies done on the country, according to a 2016 report by Salwa El Antari, former manager of the research department at the National Bank of Egypt and head of the economic committee of the Egyptian Social Party.

A study of trends in women’s involvement in the workforce released by the International Labor Organization (ILO) argues that, globally, 34.2% of employed women work less than 35 hours per week, compared to 23.4% of employed men. The figures suggest that women undertake more unpaid household work than men, making it impossible for them to invest more hours in paid work. Therefore, they are underpaid and overworked.

El Antari’s study, released by New Woman Foundation, an Egyptian non-governmental organization that attempts to empower women and reduce inequalities, argues that it’s crucial not to overlook women’s unpaid contribution to the economy, in addition to studying their formal and informal work. Her research covered a sample of 12,000 families from all Egyptian governorates and data was used from a 2012 survey. Her findings were the first estimate of their kind ever obtained of the value of Egyptian females’ unpaid household labor.

Throughout her interaction with various women as the subjects of her research, the Director of the Women and Work Program at the New Woman Foundation Mona Ezzat discovered that many females who worked for their families described themselves as housewives or unemployed.

Through her research, El Antari found out that many females who work for their families or in family businesses do not receive an income. According to her, this leaves female workers not only economically dependent but also more vulnerable to family violence and less empowered to participate in decision-making.


While she admitted that household work estimates cannot be included in GDP calculations, El Antari explained that they reflected a more precise image of the female contribution to the economy as they provided services that support the income-generation processes.

While El Antari’s findings bring Egypt one step closer to that goal, the researcher herself believes that real progress is not possible without the active application of laws. “The real step that we needed was the constitution but it remains to be translated into legislations that are applicable on the ground-level,” she says.

According to Ezzat, females who are in the labor force are involved in fields that require work similar in nature to domestic caretaking work. “There are specific fields where women are present in very small numbers. These include mining, building and construction,” she explains. Ezzat adds that this is due to the deep cultural belief that delegates the burden of child-raising on the mother alone rather than encouraging a shared-responsibility approach.

This failure to share responsibility might explain why two out of every three women who leave work in Egypt for family-related reasons do not return to work, according to the ILO, and why women’s employment rate in 2015 was 25.5% less than that of men’s, compared to only 0.6% in 1995.

Associate Research Professor Hania Sholkamy from the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo agrees with the ILO research, having authored several works on the reality of work for Egyptian women. “They [mothers] have to find ways to make income and work that does not intrude on their idealized reproductive role,” she says.

Informal work

Due to the difficulty of getting employed formally as a woman of childbearing age—be it due to the inflexible hours conflicting with childcare and home responsibilities or employers preferring men over women in many sectors—many females resort to the informal sector to be able to balance paid with unpaid domestic work.

According to Sholkamy, these factors along with the ease of entry and exit are what drive many women to seek informal work. Sholkamy believes that the flexibility of informal work is especially attractive for the less-privileged women with unsupportive families. She gives the example of some women having to work to provide an income while pretending not to work around visiting family members either by missing shifts or avoiding talking about the subject.

In fact, that was the case with Zizi Mohamed, a 33-year-old widow who, lacking her late-husband’s family’s support, went on various business endeavors. Women offering informal cleaning services is a popular example. For Mohamed, it was selling homemade falafel and cheese on the street.


Informal work typically means less yield and much more danger. Research conducted by Taha Kassem published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences shows that informal employment increased from 30.7% in 1998 to 40% in 2012, accounting for 68% of the GDP in Egypt. The study adds that formal employees who do the same work typically receive lower wages. In addition, women in the informal economy receive lower wages than men in the same jobs.

Workers in the informal economy hardly have job security, which jeopardizes their income. They do not have any form of social protection, including maternity leave, health insurance and retirement pensions. Most importantly, there are no accurate estimates of their numbers or contribution and they are hardly contributing to the country’s GDP.

Discrimination in the workplace

CAPMAS shows a visible gap between working women and men in Egypt, with women’s participation in the economy standing at 23%, one of the lowest rates in the world according to the Economic Research Forum (ERF).

The number comes down to around 10% in Upper Egypt, according to Heba Handoussa, the head of Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID), an organization dedicated to developing women in Upper Egypt, and former managing director of the ERF. CAPMAS argued that the gap ought to be minimized in order to ensure fair share of the economy which leads to equal opportunities for both genders.

Sholkamy explains that this is due to the patriarchal social order in Egypt that relegates women’s work to secondary status. “When they do compete in the market, they get the bad jobs,” she adds.

That means that formal and informal sectors often prefer males over female counterparts. Ghossoun Hamdy, the primary breadwinner in her family and a secretary at Gloria Ceramics, explains that she would often get rejected at job interviews because she is a woman. “If I am applying for a job at a call center, for instance, they would often say they need men because they’d be able to work night shifts,” she recounts.

Hamdy also often works selling products on commission in parallel to her full-time job.

Aside from the discriminatory environment, balancing work and family obligations in a society that often puts pressure on women to answer the needs of children and household needs, women in the workplace often face harassment. A study by the Egyptian Labor Union in 2014 shows that 30% of women in the workplace are subjected to verbal harassment.

Hamdy recounts an interview where her potential future boss asked her whether she knows how to give massages because he has a slipped disc and needs a secretary who can give massages. “The concept of a secretary is wrong in many people’s heads,” she adds.

Sholkamy believes safety, dignity and security in the workplace and transportation are key to developing women’s role in the economy.

Several non-governmental organizations, like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), try to seek solutions to empower women economically in Egypt. UN Women announced that equality in the workforce can increase the country’s GDP by up to 34%.

Egypt has made great progress in educating women, increasing their lifespan and lowering their birth rates since the 1990s. However, when it comes to equal opportunities in the economy, there is still a lag, according to the World Bank report released on Egypt and the Middle East.

The lack of women’s participation is due to discrimination in their careers which many women have to deal with in their everyday career paths.

“The first thing that comes to my mind as a form of discrimination against females is the job opportunities. The real index shows a big unemployment rate for women compared to men,” says El Antari. “The unemployment rate in Egypt is 13.4 %, and if we divide this percentage into two segments, we will find the percentage for women is more than 25% while men weigh 8.5%, which is three times lower than the percentage of females.”

Although the labor law under Egypt’s constitution stresses the implementation of gender equality in the labor market, job titles, job ranks and pay scales, it is not entirely implemented. Policy makers should consider that laws can be subjected and limited by cultural differences.

For example, women are not allowed to work in factories until late as it is not safe for them to go home late, which minimizes their participation in this field, El Antari says.

She explains that governmental stakeholders are helping men to take many opportunities from women which makes the gap wider, preferring male candidates over females, even if the official ads say the job is open for both genders.

Wage discrimination is one major form of gender inequality in Egypt since women are paid less than men while working in the same positions and putting in the same effort; men still get a higher monthly salary compared to women.

According to the ILO’s 2015 Gender Pay Gap index, women’s wages range between 4 and 36% less than men’s, according to the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth (IARIW). Men and women are equal under the constitution. However, the ILO index estimates that women still have 75 years to reach the “equal pay for equal work” principle, according to the IARIW.

Ezzat, from the New Woman Foundation’s Working Women program, says some corporates would discriminate against women by making claims that women are not committed to their jobs as much as men are as mothers leave the job at anytime or take a break to look after their kids or due to pregnancy.

Ezzat adds that this comes from a culture of masculinity which puts women in the “mother” category only while ignoring a woman’s capability of performing a job just as well as a man can. “There is an absence of applying the law regarding working women which is a result not only of lack of governmental supervision but also the societal stereotype of women being responsible for the kids,” says Ezzat.

Economic empowerment

The ILO has announced the recognition and valuation of unpaid care and domestic work as one of the fundamentals of women’s economic empowerment, leading to gender equality on their 2030 agenda. But prioritizing and defining issues within economic empowerment differs from one expert to the other.

El Antari defines economic empowerment of women as “empowering females to become active economic participants so that they have the right to participate in the decision-making process inside the house, at the workplace and in the political arena on the societal level.”

On the other hand, Handoussa believes that education is key in empowering women. “Economic empowerment means that you understand what options are so if you’re illiterate, you’re starting at the very bottom of the pyramid and you need to climb a ladder that’s quite high, so that’s step one,” she says.

She adds that the role of NGOs dedicated to women is crucial because they teach women to become leaders and entrepreneurs, especially those focusing less on charities and more on development of women, and engaging them in economic activities in a more sustainable approach.

Hanaa El Hilaly, current UN advisor on sustainable development and former managing director of the Social Fund for Development at the Cabinet of Ministers, believes that empowering women economically is essential to “raise the standards of living of their families.” She adds that if women guarantee bread on the table at the end of the day, they will have more appetite for political participation.

Women do set precedents in some fields such as banking and public relations. However, significant change in social behavior toward women’s participation in the economy needs to take place to support the need to adopt labor market policies which stand for working women.


Supporting an effective women’s entrepreneurship policy could be an effective way to tackle female unemployment in the market. Founder of Charisma Arts and entrepreneurship coach Vivian Labib warns, however, that being an entrepreneur is not easy and women need strength and support.

“You don’t have a sustainable income every day, you’re not an employee so you know nothing about your salary at the end of the month,” she explains. “Many people, including your own family, don’t know what it is exactly that you are doing.”

On the other hand, Dina El-Mofty of INJAZ Egypt is more optimistic about the situation of women in the global economy which is giving them more opportunities. “In areas, women are not given equal rights, and in other areas, they are getting their recognition.

There is always room for improvement, especially in this new generation of women who are very resilient and are creating change across the board; and now there is a movement to include more women globally. So I am sure with time, this will happen here in Egypt,” she says. She believes women in Egypt are already empowered.

“There is not one solution, and we don’t need to empower women. Women are very powerful already. They just need to be included, and included within different areas of economies, of companies and so on.”

Timeline of Women in the Workforce

1800s Women were mainly involved in the agriculture sector but also served as traders, entertainers and midwives while women of higher social classes were restricted to domestic duties.

1832 Mohamed Ali inaugurated a midwifery school for women at Abu Zaabal to encourage women of higher social classes to work.

1900 Influential writer and feminist Qasim Amin and Sheikh Mohammed Abdou called for women’s education and involvement in the workplace.

1909 Nabawiya Musa was the first woman to graduate from a secondary school and started writing later in her life on women and work.

1923 The first Egyptian feminist union was formed, calling for voting and education rights for women as well as providing handicrafts production training for girls

1937 The Egyptian Feminist Union demanded female participation in the League of Nations to represent Egypt internationally.

1951 About 1,000 women stormed the Parliament to demand equal voting rights.

1956 The constitution replaced the 1923 declaring all Egyptians to be equal, regardless of gender. It also forced employers to grant women paid maternity leave of 50 days and provide daycare services wherever 100 or more women were employed. The constitution also forbade employers to fire women on maternity leaves.

1962 A women’s rights clause was added to the national charter stating that “women must be regarded as equal to men and must, therefore, shed the remaining shackles that impede her free movement so that she may play a constructive and profoundly important part in shaping the life of the country.”

Hikmat Abu Zayd became the first Egyptian woman to become a minister, holding the position of the minister of social affairs.

1963 The ministry of social affairs supported vocational training centers, dedicating LE 5.5 million to the start-up of 27 female vocational training centers run by the state.

1966 A study by the Institute of National Planning showed that 82% of female agricultural laborers worked for family businesses for free and didn’t receive any wages to compensate for their work.

1979 Late President Mohamed Anwar El Sadat modified the personal status laws to include more women’s rights, granting women the right to work without her husband’s permission.

1960-1980 Female unemployment rate rose from three times that of the male rate to four times in the 1980s and until 2008.

2017 President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi declared 2017 to be the year of women, announcing several initiatives to support economic empowerment of women, including funding SMEs and supporting mothers.

A new draft of the Egyptian labor law is expected to grant female employees the right to three unpaid maternal leaves instead of two and expand each leave’s duration to reach up to two years and reduce the pregnant employee’s working hours after the sixth month of pregnancy.

Nadia Abdou became the first Egyptian female governor.



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