The following opinion column was published by The Independent. Co-written by Andrew Baird, CEO of EFE, and Nour Kamel, Director of Partnerships and Communications. View the full article online.
With over half of the population under 30, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is poised to reap a demographic and economic dividend if it can overcome the biggest obstacle limiting its growth: an unemployment rate of 42.5% among Arab women, triple the global average. It is a region-wide gender employment gap that persists despite progress in women’s literacy and education. But a transformative solution presents itself in the Information Technology (IT), including new Artificial Intelligence (AI) sectors.
Throughout this region and beyond, young people, women, and mature workers encounter disproportionate challenges in entering and advancing in the workforce. Governments and employers can help support work for all, even as technological revolutions, especially in AI, are predicted to transform entire sectors and job categories. But strategic thinking must begin now to safeguard employers and workers amidst an IT and AI revolution, and we are thankful these were on the agenda of the Global Labor Market Conference (GLMC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 13-14. Two of the conference’s knowledge tracks, ‘Work for All’ and ‘AI Needs People?’, were particularly relevant to the challenges faced by Arab women in the workforce.
Investing in these sectors can be a game changer in reducing the gender employment gap. Were women’s employment rates to approach those of men, an estimated $2 trillion in gains in GPD could be realized. Impacts on social stability could be equally dramatic.
Efforts have been uneven thus far. Jordan has a 100% literacy rate, but women’s labor participation is a mere 15%. Traditional gender norms, discriminatory laws, and demographic pressures, all contribute to the pervasive employment gender gap, exacerbated by a private sector unprepared to accommodate women.
Throughout MENA, gender-responsive facilities and employment packages are rare. This isn’t merely a women’s issue; it’s a serious economic concern. The rise in the ratio of young people, coupled with unpromising economic forecasts in many countries, underscores the urgency for a transformative solution. The IT and AI sectors could be it.
IT and AI sectors offer a pathway through the barriers women traditionally face when entering the job market. For one, IT-related jobs and careers have pioneered and normalized remote work. This alone enables women to overcome hurdles they traditionally face such as childcare, transportation, and workplace safety.
Moreover, IT and AI aren’t your typical sectors. They are favorably regarded and high-demand industries that are aspirational for women. After facing 18 months of unemployment, Zineb, learned coding through Education For Employment (EFE), secured an entry-level position at an IT company, and has since been promoted. Of EFE’s female graduates, 19% are more likely to retain their jobs in the IT sector than in other sectors.
"We are at a pivotal moment where employers can play a crucial role by breaking the no job/no experience cycle," stated International Labour Organization Director Gilbert Houngbo during his keynote address at the GLMC. His insight aligns seamlessly with the transformative potential of the IT and AI sectors.
Joud Althagafi, Policy & Impact Senior Analyst, Takamol Group, and GLMC Youth Talent who later joined Director Houngbo in a fireside chat focused on young people in the labour market emphasised this point, saying, "The way to drive change toward social and environmental considerations in the corporate world is to do it from the inside. This happens when companies value hearing youth speak and through social dialogue." Indeed, the active involvement of the youth in shaping the future of these sectors is vital.
We also often overlook the economic effects of integration into the workforce – estimated as high as a 57% rise in regional GDP. A ripple effect presents itself as a well-trained workforce attracting foreign investments, leading to job creation.
The formal nature of IT jobs also aligns seamlessly with government priorities, formalizing women’s employment. Data from EFE graduates show youth placed in the IT sector have more stable contracts than those in other sectors, eliminating economic vulnerability associated with non-formal employment sectors.
By supporting women to access IT and AI jobs, governments would simultaneously aid economic expansion. Saudi Arabia’s investment in policies to support women’s employment has resulted in a rise in female labor force participation rates to 36% from 17.7% in 2016. According to the S&P, this will boost the kingdom’s economy by $39 billion by 2032. Ensuring women in the workforce are equipped with the skills needed for IT, including AI jobs plays a pivotal role in future economic growth.
Integrating women into the IT and AI sectors is challenging, primarily due to the substantial government investment needed for infrastructure and learning models. Moreover, the private sector must re-evaluate its job requirements and hiring processes to welcome newly trained young women into IT and AI careers.
The return on investment more than justifies the costs. The growing training space for the IT and AI sectors, along with competency-based learning and hiring models, indicate a viable path forward. The increasing penetration of social media has familiarised audiences with basic digital literacy, rendering it more possible than ever for individuals to acquire the required skills.
Taken together, these investments are more strategic imperative than policy options for the region. These sectors not only can solve the gender employment gap; they also offer economic prosperity and women’s employment in other sectors. Governments and private-sector players must invest in practical learning models that link education to the workplace, exposing women to the world of work, and equipping them to succeed.