• April 28, 2015


Photo: Miami U. Libraries, Digital Collections [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

April 28, 2015,In my last post,Economic Growth\r\nStarts Here–I described the work of George Washington University students just beginning to research women’s labor force participation in Malaysia and Indonesia,and our hope that their findings can help Nathan Associates design an economic empowerment program for Egypt.

In a conservative country like Egypt, where patriarchy is tangible, relatives discourage wives and daughters from entering the labor force. Many women recognize the stigma they would face should they choose to seek employment and thus don’t. And many feel that their only “occupations” should be as wives and mothers.

The GWU team is seeing that gender norms like those prevalent in Egypt have a similar-though less oppressive-impact on women’s labor force participation in Malaysia and Indonesia. In both countries, women report that in general, they feel society supports the idea of women as valuable additions to the labor force. That is, society supports the idea, so long as women prioritize their social roles as mothers and wives over an outside career.

Culture and gender norms have stacked the deck against women entering the labor force. Around the world, women are taught to aspire to marriage and care-giving, placing secondary or no importance on maintaining a career or job outside the home. Gender norms like these are an essential part of our identity and are not easily or quickly changed. But if women are going to join the workforce and prosper through their work such norms must change,and change from within. Women must want as well as need to join the workforce.

What we are seeing in Malaysia and Indonesia is that gender norms can change. In both countries women are increasingly able to seek formal employment without struggling to do so (so long as they keep up with their household duties). Our goal is to gain insight into exactly how that change has come about–how cultural prejudices are being combatted–in order to bring the practices of change to new arenas, such as Egypt.

Social norms have long kept women from prosperous employment and changing them is a daunting task. Daunting, but not impossible.

Caroline Kaufman joined Nathan Associates in February 2015 as a program assistant. She has contributed to studies of the livelihoods of female refugees, and studies of development issues and gender. Caroline has a B.A. in international relations and development economics from Tufts University.

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