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How industrialization took its toll on Egyptian women

Sun, Jun. 30, 2019
CAIRO - 30 June 2019: Shifting from an agrarian society to an industrialized one eliminates certain professions or at least notably reduces the demand on them, while creating others. Such shift has caused women to lose their economic role in some countries to men as business owners would favor employing males rather than females for different reasons.

Industrialization, which currently encompasses also the services sector and not just the manufacturing one, has set skills different from those required in an agrarian society to enter the labor market. Hence, the gender discrimination in some societies have impeded many women, particularly in the lower and lower middle class, from acquiring better paying jobs in the formal sector.

In Egypt, discrimination ranges from parents denying their daughters the opportunity of receiving education to employers favoring men for manual jobs in factories and workshops where there is shortage of skilled labor. As women have become increasingly contributing to the family's income, improving their economic status would have its positive impact on the country's economy.

Women's economic participation rose in some developing countries in the industrialization phase. An explanation of this is that in terms of labor supply, women constituted qualified and experienced labor with low fertility. As for countries where women's economic participation declined, there have been many interpretations.

One is that multinational corporations make capital-intensive investments in developing countries leading to an expansive informal sector offering makeshift, self-employed, service jobs. Another is that factories owners in export-oriented countries opt for hiring only young, single women who are dismissed as soon as they get married and begin having children.

That is because they work for few years at low wages and produce competitively priced goods for the world economy. In Egypt, employers in the manufacturing sector may abstain from even hiring young single women and investing in their training in fear of high turnover once they get engaged or married.

However, export-led growth explanations adopted by the World Bank and certain economic doctrines suggest that as long as local governments do not manipulate the four factors of production, labor-intensive jobs would be created absorbing underemployed labor. Such manipulation can be in the form of putting barriers on imports and exports, promulgating inappropriate legislations, or subsidizing capital.

In the 1970s, the nations of East and Southeast Asia, women were the backbone of a work force producing labor-intensive goods consumed in the West and Japan. That work force was commonly in the industries of garments, textiles, footwear, electronics, and agribusiness.

At that time, women unemployment was greater in South Korea than in Taiwan because foreign investors in the former had put money in capital-intensive heavy industries unlike the latter which had the aforementioned labor-intensive industries on a large scope. In general, export-oriented industrialization mode, which is widely followed, often relies primarily upon a young female work force.

Valentine M. Moghadam, director of the International Affairs and Middle East Studies programs at Northeastern University, wrote a book titled Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East in 1993 showcasing how industrialization affected women in Egypt.

Since 1970s, Egypt has been implementing the import-substitution industrialization as it imported machinery to manufacture consumer goods. The economy was characterized by central planning and a large public sector. The employment opportunities for women have been available in civil service, in state-run factories, and in the private sector receiving state support and foreign investment. Employment for well-educated women increased in commercial and industrial enterprises and public administration.

The industrialization in many developing countries has been female-led as it has been export-led. In the cities of the Middle East, women are marginalized from production, especially the formal-sector productive process, and concentrated in community, social, and personal services. There is a widespread Middle Eastern attitude that factory work is not suitable for women, which is the reason the demand for female labor is limited. In addition, the degree of industrialization, which is an important stage for economic development, is limited.

Although women had entered the industrial sector under late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the economic crisis in Egypt and the rapid population growth limit formal employment opportunities. The vast majority of Egyptian women are engaged in the informal sector as street vendors, working at home seamstresses, and taking part in a myriad of small-scale income generating activities.

According to the National Women Council, female household providers constitute 36 percent of all Egyptian women. According to the Central Institute for Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the percentage of working women is 22.9 percent of the total labor force, and the percentage of illiterate women is 33.5 percent of all women in Egypt (2014). These numbers indicate that a large number of female household providers work in the informal sector.

The percentage of women working in the informal sector is 46.7 percent of all women. The percentage of women working in the informal sector with no payment (as part of family business) is 60.3 percent of all women, while the percentage is only 11.7 percent for men.

Informal employment is working without contract, health or social insurance. Informal self employment is working without registration, license, social or health insurance. In 1990s, 97 percent of self-employed females in Egypt were operating on an informal basis, according to a study titled " Women in Private Business: Formal and Informal Comparison." The research was published in 1993 by Heba Nassar, political science professor and former vice-president of Cairo University.

Men dominate sectors and occupations with better-paid jobs. The number of women as clericals, professionals, and farmers is very low, and their set of skills does not match the job market requirements. Egypt suffers from sexual division of labor, such as confining women's work to teaching, nursing, medical services and social services. The horticulture sector is a major employer for women but on seasonal basis unlike men as they are permanently employed.

The global economic crisis that occurred in 2008 had a negative impact on the local economy, as 75 percent of the GDP is composed of the international trade, according to a study conducted by Nassar in 2009 titled "The Impact of Economic Crisis on Women in Egypt."

Women have been concentrated in the low skilled occupations that got hit the most by the economic crisis. In late 2000s, one third of working women were non-paid family workers. Almost the third of working males were entrepreneurs (whether self-employed or employers), while nearly one fifth of working women were entrepreneurs, and they tend to be self-employed rather than employers. Women mostly resort to entrepreneurship or become part of a family business to manage between household and work whereas they perform various tasks from production to processing and marketing.

This entrepreneurship sector has been sharply hit by the crisis as a result of the lack of crisis management awareness, shortage in liquidity and inefficient marketing channels. "Several women reported that they had to freeze many activities and to lay off workers and warned other women to enter into business without strong connections to the market and effective linkage channels to crisis mitigation and prevention mechanisms," according to Nassar.

Unemployment among women has increased to include nearly one quarter of women in the labor market. A survey, used in Nassar's study and that was conducted in Egypt following the 2008 economic crisis, indicated that the majority of respondents said that men should be given priority over women when job opportunities decrease. Employers in the private sector also perceive women as expensive labor because of the long-period maternity leaves, and other benefits granted by law to women.

In 2015, unemployment among women recorded 24.2 percent against 9.4 percent among men, according to CAPMAS. The percentages among fresh graduates in 2010 were 20.5 for women and 3.7 for men. The percentages were 25.3 among urban women and 16.8 percent among rural women. That is because the ascending private sector is less willing to hire women in fear of frequent absences because of their family duties, according to Nassar.
 
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