Countries around the world are focused on enforcing stay-at-home edicts, lockdowns and even curfews to halt the exponential spread of the virus that causes COVID-19—and policies to assist those thrown out of work as a result. Yet, what will come later also deserves attention—particularly how policies might affect women already struggling to join the workforce in developing economies.
We recently published a study that examined the obstacles women face finding jobs in Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa region. Despite tremendous strides in education attainment, women's engagement in the labor force there remains limited. Will Egypt's post-pandemic recovery further exacerbate these structural barriers and inequities? Or, could the current economic crisis be an opportunity to “reset” and develop new opportunities to employ women and foster the conditions for a more inclusive and diversified labor force?
Egypt, like most countries around the world, will be looking at policy measures to restore the economy. This presents an opportunity to think proactively about policies that could help countries like Egypt realize their full human capital potential.
Ultimately, the private sector is the economic engine that spurs long-term growth and is the main source for employment. However, working conditions are generally better in the government sector, further increasing its attractiveness as the preferred place of employment for women. To address the historic imbalance of employment of women in the public over the private sector, Egypt has to uniformly enforce its existing laws and policies against gender discrimination in hiring, fair wages and benefits, and workplace harassment and protections.
In addition, current laws constrain women from obtaining formal documentation, traveling, or conducting other independent activities. These urgently need to be reformed because they hinder women from seeking employment or being able to register and operate a business. Discriminatory business lending practices that affect women, directly and indirectly, also need to be reformed.
Investment in Recovery Initiatives
Egypt's economic recovery initiatives are likely to include eliminating regulatory bottlenecks, increasing access to financial capital for small- and medium-size enterprises and investing in infrastructure. At the same time, the government needs to consider if and how these responses will provide opportunities for women in the private sector.
Investments in information technology infrastructure to expand network access and bandwidth for businesses and households would increase equity.Share on Twitter
If, for instance, infrastructure investment focuses only on large construction projects, that would tend to provide job opportunities for men and not for women. By contrast, investments in information technology infrastructure to expand network access and bandwidth for businesses and households would increase equity. Such investments would foster greater opportunities for work-from-home for individuals, including women who need to reconcile work and household responsibilities. It would also provide opportunities for women who prefer to work from home because of lack of safe and reliable transportation to get to and from work.
Early Childhood Education
Egypt also needs to invest in universal early childhood education. Studies point to the positive effects of high-quality early childhood education on a child's future well-being and earnings. But investments in early childhood education also can encourage women's participation in the labor market and provide employment opportunities for women as teachers and childcare providers.
Eventually, the rate of COVID-19 infections will slow, restrictions such as distancing will be lifted, and the government will be eager to get people working again. This is an opportunity for a country like Egypt to hit the “reset” button and lift longstanding impediments to its future growth and prosperity and ultimately, the long-term welfare of all its citizens.
Louay Constant is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and has worked on a range of social policy issues, including education and training, labor markets and workforce development.
This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on May 11, 2020. Outside View © 2020 United Press International.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.